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Defeated Rafael Nadal, but still insists I can be competitive in a few weeks

Rafael Nadal participated for the second time since early January – after suffering an injury – Getty Images/Pau Barrena

It’s not often that Rafael Nadal suffers a defeat on clay and declares himself elated by the entire experience. But Nadal was hardly in a typical situation in Barcelona this week, having returned to the red-brick court after 681 days.

Wednesday’s meeting with world number 11 Alex de Minaur was a real test of Nadal’s progress after so many months away with hip and abdominal injuries.

Any Nadal fans watching the match from a distance might have been concerned by his 6-4, 6-1 defeat, especially as their man fell heavily, losing nine of the last ten matches. Yet those watching on television – or at the Pista Rafa Nadal in Barcelona – would have found real encouragement in some of the early exchanges.

Nadal made a slow start and dropped his opening game, but then fought back from 3-1 down to lead 4-3. He also had a break point to make it four games in a row, only for De Minaur to avert the danger with a stinging forehand winner.

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“I feel much more comfortable and happier today than a week and a half ago,” Nadal told reporters in Barcelona. “I could play and I didn’t get far [off], no doubt. And I personally feel that if I can keep practicing and if my body allows me to spend hours on the court, I hope to be competitive. That is the truth. And I will believe that in a few weeks I can be competitive. Let’s see.

“That is the way I have to proceed today,” Nadal added, “and my ultimate goal is to get the opportunity to at least participate in Roland Garros. In my tennis career I have been able to play every tournament at the highest level. I can’t do it today, but I hope to be done in a few weeks. And I will do my best.”

‌Is the French Open really Nadal’s ‘end goal’? If the sentence has a worryingly definitive sound, it may have something to do with the language barrier.

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Granted, it seems possible that Nadal’s 37-year-old body isn’t up to the task of playing grass or hard court tennis. Yet you would probably expect him to undertake two campaigns on the Parisian clay court this season, the second in the context of the Olympic Games.

Serve emerges as a weakness in his game

‌The biggest problem for Nadal this week was a lack of grip on his serve. Even if his abs have healed enough to compete, it’s still clearly a pain. Maybe he’s worried about causing a replay if he swings too hard.

His principles were much more encouraging. Yes, there may have been plenty of misses, especially when he was looking for a hiding place. But the good news was that he could generate pace from both wings. During that 25-minute period in the first set, he dictated the game in familiar fashion, forcing De Minaur – one of the fastest players in the game – to perform consecutive shuttle runs along the baseline.

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“Alex is a great player,” Nadal said afterwards. “In terms of tennis, he is in better shape than me today. He has been playing at a high level since the start of this season.

“I think most importantly, when I really tried at a high percentage of intensity, I was able to show myself and the rest of the world that my level was there to compete. I haven’t practiced this much, so that encourages me to keep going. If I can spend days on tour and continue to practice with players on this surface, I really hope and believe I can be competitive.

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