Rafael Nadal makes clay-court return in masterful performance at Barcelona Open

Nadal defeated Flavio Cobolli.
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Rafael Nadal had not played on his beloved clay since 2022. He missed most of 2023 after injuring his hip in the Australian Open in January. To begin 2024, Nadal played on the hard court of the Brisbane International. But Nadal is never better than when he plays on clay. Heck, center court at the Barcelona Open is named after Nadal.

On Tuesday, Nadal's return to the clay in Barcelona against Italian Flavio Cobolli. The 21-year-old Cobolli looked more nervous than Nadal throughout most of the match. The Italian had 27 unforced errors in the first set alone and Nadal only won 34 points in the set. Still, Nadal was patient with his shots and consistently hit cross-court powerful backhands that Cobolli had no answer for.

The match finished 6-2 6-3 in a fairly easy victory for Nadal. Cobolli finished with 41 unforced errors, so even though he played a bit more cleanly in the second set, Nadal had no issues breaking his serve, doing so four times. Nadal's victory was not due to his bombastic forehand, but his return ability.

Rafael Nadal overcomes Flavio Cobolli in clay-court return at the Barcelona Open

This is a great sign for the Spaniard because that means he was moving well enough to get to whatever Cobolli was attempting to do and nothing Cobolli attempted consistently worked. Nadal's own first serve was far from perfect, but his second serve was well-placed enough to only be broken once in the second set. Even then, Nadal broke right back to lead 3-1.

Nadal's next match at the Barcelona Open is not likely to be so easy. He will play fifth-seeded Alex de Minaur who is having a fantastic year so far. De Minaur moves around the court extremely well so the balls Cobolli could not get to, de Minaur likely can. This, of course, is not to say that Nadal cannot beat the Australian because he can, but he will need to raise his level of play a bit higher than it was against Cobolli.

Nadal will still be working his way back into tennis shape as well. Winning one match is great, but can he keep repeating form and level without suffering any new injuries or exhaustion? Let's hope so, obviously. Having Nadal be dangerous in tournaments again is good for tennis. At least his match against Cobolli was an impressive re-start to his season.

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