Rafael Nadal shows he’s not quite ready to retire in Italian Open return

ROME — For a brief period Thursday, Rafael Nadal looked like a tired 37-year-old nearing retirement.

Struggling to produce rhythm on both ends with his groundstrokes, committing an unusually high number of unforced errors and unable to stay in rallies, Nadal lost the first set of his first-round match at the Italian Open against Belgian qualifier Zizou Bergs.

Then the virtually unbeatable version of Nadal on clay, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, emerged and the Spaniard rallied for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in front of an adoring crowd in what will likely be his last tournament at the Foro Italico.

Nadal was playing only his 10th match this year after missing almost all of 2023 with a hip injury that required surgery. He hopes to be competitive one last time at the French Open, where he is a record 14-time champion.

“It wasn’t my best match. I trained better than the way I played today, without a doubt. But I found a way to win,” Nadal said. “It’s so important at the start of the tournament. For me, it’s normal.

Rome, where he is a record 10-time champion, is Nadal’s last major preparation tournament before the start of Roland Garros on May 26.

During his 70th victory in the Italian capital, the Campo Centrale crowd chanted to Nadal: “Ole, Ole, Ole, Na-dal, Na-dal.”

“I have always been emotional playing here, these kind of events are the most important events of my tennis career,” Nadal said. “The crowd has always been amazing to me, supporting me since the beginning of my tennis career, so I’m super excited to be able to play here once again.

Nadal was coming off a straight-set loss to 31st-ranked Jiri Lehecka in the fourth round of the Madrid Open. But he has never lost consecutive matches on clay in his entire career and now that impressive statistic remains intact in what he indicated will be his final season on tour.

Nadal got off to a strong start, unleashing a 95 mph (153 km/h) forehand winner en route to an early break and a 3-1 lead in the first set. But he returned the break in the very next match when he missed three weak groundstrokes into the net.

Then at 4-4, Nadal double-faulted twice and was broken again to give 108th-ranked Bergs a 5-4 lead and a chance to serve the entire set.

In the first set, Nadal committed 16 unforced errors compared to 10 for Bergs.

During the first game of the second set, the match was briefly suspended when a spectator in the stands required medical attention. This allowed Nadal to speak with Carlos Moya, his coach.

After a 10-minute suspension of play, Nadal took a 3-0 lead in the second set by increasing the power of his shots and becoming more aggressive.

During the third set, Nadal managed to win a point after falling on the red clay, quickly getting up to resume the rally and then performing a delicate drop-shot winner. Then he launched a crosscourt forehand winner to take a 3-1 lead and unleashed a double-clutch fist pump.

There were more punches as Nadal went from 0-40 on his serve to maintain a 4-2 lead in the third.

Nadal’s mother and sister sitting behind the court shouted encouragement and his one-year-old son was also on the court, sitting on Nadal’s father’s lap.

The Nadal family can now look forward to a second-round clash with seventh-seeded Hubert Hurkacz. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic is on the other side of the draw, while second-ranked Jannik Sinner and third-ranked Carlos Alcaraz both withdrew due to injuries.

In other matches, Serbian qualifier Hamad Medjedovic beat Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-2; Thiago Seboth Wild beat French qualifier Grégoire Barrere 6-4, 6-2; and Dominik Koepfer eliminated Andrea Vavassori 6-4, 6-3.

On the women’s side, former number one Angelique Kerber ousted 17th seed Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 6-0.

Other matches were suspended due to rain.


AP Tennis: