Why Rafa put logic over instinct in comeback match

Spaniard eased past Cobolli in straight sets at ATP 500
April 16, 2024
Rafael Nadal eased to victory in his maiden Lexus ATP Head2Head clash with Flavio Cobolli on Tuesday in Barcelona.
Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell
Rafael Nadal eased to victory in his maiden Lexus ATP Head2Head clash with Flavio Cobolli on Tuesday in Barcelona. By ATP Staff

Rafael Nadal’s 6-2, 6-3 victory against Flavio Cobolli on Tuesday at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell is the kind of commanding scoreline fans are used to seeing, especially when he competes on clay.

Yet the first-round match at the ATP 500 still represented a big mental challenge for the Spaniard as he made his return to action after a three-month injury absence. Nadal acknowledged that he is still holding himself back in certain moments in order to ease his body back into match action — not something that comes easily to one of the fiercest competitors the ATP Tour has ever seen.

“It’s super difficult, honestly,” said Nadal in his post-match press conference. “It’s difficult to manage all this and do logical things when you are competing, and when I am competing in the places that are super special, emotionally, for me.

“It was difficult to manage the conditions today, but I was able to manage because I was more or less in control. I didn’t have to make amazing effort in terms of physical demands. Let’s see if I’m able to keep managing that the proper way.”

The most visible aspect of Nadal’s game that he did not appear to be fully leaning into was his first serve. The 37-year-old former No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings said this was simply a pragmatic decision to get his body used to the intensity of competing again.

“For me the main thing is to have the chance to grow,” said Nadal. “There were things [I could have done] today that [could have given] me the possibility to play better today, but don’t give me the possibility to play the next day or the next couple of days, or in terms of weeks, in Madrid or Rome.

“Probably I will be smart enough to not try to serve at my highest level today. I think I am not able to serve 100 per cent free of problems. I didn’t have pain, honestly, today, but I didn’t serve much for the past two months. I’m just trying to do things the way I really believe that [I should]. I’m just trying to push when I really need to push, if I can.”

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Nadal converted four of 10 break points against Cobolli, according to Infosys ATP Stats, as he gave a delighted home crowd plenty to cheer about on the stadium court that bears his name. He has won 12 of his 92 tour-level crowns at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona, where he was given a hero's welcome on his first appearance since 2021.

“The crowd was great," said Nadal. "A full crowd since the beginning. Even before the match started, the court was full so that means a lot to me to be able to walk on court today and feel that warmth and that support. In a very special place for me, it’s so helpful and means a lot to me to receive that support and that love.”

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