Rafael Nadal beaten but insists ‘I can be competitive in a few weeks’

Rafael Nadal – Rafael Nadal beaten but insists 'I can be competitive in a few weeks'

Rafael Nadal was competing for the second time since early January – after picking up an injury – Getty Images/Pau Barrena

It is not often that Rafael Nadal takes a beatdown on clay and declares himself delighted with the whole experience. But then Nadal was hardly in a typical situation in Barcelona this week, having returned to the red-brick courts after 681 days away.

Wednesday’s meeting with world No11 Alex de Minaur was a real test of Nadal’s progress after so many months out with hip and abdominal injuries.

Any Nadal fans following the match remotely might have felt concerned by his 6-4, 6-1 defeat, especially as their man fell away badly to lose nine of the last 10 games. Yet those watching on TV – or on the Pista Rafa Nadal in Barcelona – would have found genuine encouragement in some of the first-set exchanges.

‌Making a slow start, Nadal dropped his opening service 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 stave off the danger with a stinging forehand winner.

“I feel much more comfortable and happier today than one week and a half ago,” Nadal told reporters in Barcelona. “I was able to play and I was not very far [off], without doubt. And I feel myself that if I’m able to keep practising, and if my body allows me to spend hours on court, I hope to be competitive. That’s the truth. And will believe I can be competitive in a few weeks. Let’s see.

‌“That’s the way I need to proceed today,” Nadal added, “and my final goal is to get a chance to at least compete in Roland Garros. In my tennis career, I was able to play every tournament at highest level. I’m not able to do it today, but I hope to be ready in a few weeks. And I will try hard.”

‌Is the French Open really Nadal’s “final goal”? If the phrase has a worryingly definitive ring, that could have something to do with the language barrier.

‌Admittedly, it seems possible that Nadal’s 37-year-old body will be unable to cope with grass- or hard-court tennis. Yet one would probably expect him to undertake two campaigns on the Parisian clay this season, the second one as part of the Olympic Games.

Serve sticks out as a weakness in his game

‌The biggest problem for Nadal this week has been a lack of bite on his serve. Even if his abdominal muscle has healed enough for him to compete, it is clearly still troublesome. Perhaps he is worried about triggering a recurrence if he swings too hard.

‌His groundstrokes were much more encouraging. Yes, there might have been plenty of misses, especially when he was looking to make a putaway. But the good news was that he was able to generate pace off both wings. During that 25-minute spell in the first set, he dictated play in familiar fashion, forcing de Minaur – who is one of the fastest movers in the game – to perform successive shuttle runs along the baseline.

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

‌“I think I was able to show myself, most important, and the rest of the world, when I was really trying at high percentage of intensity that my level was there to compete. I didn’t practise this a lot, so that’s encouraging me to keep going. If I can spend days on tour and keep practising with players on this surface I really hope and believe that I can be competitive.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.