Nadal feels the love in Barcelona return

Record 12-time champion delights fans in emotional first-round victory
April 16, 2024
AFP/Getty Images
By Andy West

The hotly anticipated return of Rafael Nadal to ATP Tour action did not disappoint.

Stands packed with adoring fans. A pumped-up Nadal. A dominant win on clay. This was a throwback to the sort of occasion that the Spaniard has served up across his historic career, and particularly during his record 12 title runs at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell.

It was a big sporting Tuesday in the city, one which also included football giant FC Barcelona hosting French rival Paris Saint Germain. Hours before that crunch Champions League match began, Nadal took to court against Flavio Cobolli to give a stunning reminder of his ability to whip up the sort of atmosphere that the city’s star footballers might also be familiar with.

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“The crowd was great," said Nadal in his post-match press conference. "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.”

“It was a bit emotional,” a Barcelona resident and Nadal fan, who asked to be identified only as Juan E., told after watching the Spaniard’s 6-2, 6-3 triumph against Italy’s Cobolli. “He seemed very happy because the stadium was full, sold out. You could tell that everybody was present [because of the noise].”

<a href=''>Rafael Nadal</a>
Rafael Nadal returned to ATP Tour action in front of a sold-out crowd Tuesday in Barcelona. Photo Credit: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell

Tuesday’s appearance in front of a capacity crowd of 8,500 in Barcelona marked the culmination of Nadal's intense work, physically and mentally, to return to the Tour for the first time since his quarter-final run in January in Brisbane.

The Spaniard was last week forced to delay his return and miss another clay event where he has historically dominated, the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, but he moved fluidly around the court against Cobolli. Some of Nadal’s baseline hitting dazzled like the neon pink trim on his light-purple shirt and shorts on Pista Rafa Nadal.

That groundstroke prowess was more than enough to make up for the one aspect of his game that he was clearly holding back on — his serve. Nadal later acknowledged that he was putting logic over instinct in this respect, in an attempt to ease his body back into action and ensure himself a prolonged clay swing.

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Although he hails from Mallorca, Nadal has spoken of always feeling at home in Barcelona, where another set of adoring fans will pack the stands on Wednesday to watch him take on fourth seed Alex de Minaur in a second-round clash. According to those who were lucky enough to witness Tuesday’s win — the lefty’s 67th across 17 appearances at the ATP 500 — they are in for a treat.

“He is a legendary character of this event,” said Juan. “I think he was looking forward to coming here the past years. He has been suffering injuries and he couldn’t come. Everybody missed him.”

<a href=''>Rafael Nadal</a> with fans
Rafael Nadal meets fans in Barcelona after his first-round win on Tuesday afternoon. Photo Credit: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell

Another fan absorbing the palpable buzz at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona in the wake of Nadal’s win was Angelo Brunori. The Italian did not hesitate when asked what Nadal means to him and millions of other fans across the world.

“He never gives up, always fights for every single point, and wins through daily work,” said Angelo. “The match was fantastic, a huge emotion. It was really tough for him to come back. He said that on court at the end. But we are confident that he will play other matches here.”

Angelo’s reference to the daily dedication Nadal has shown across his career aligned with the scene at the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in Mallorca, where the influence of the former No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings is not hard to spot.

As staff gathered around televisions to watch the match, junior players at the academy were conspicuously absent. Following Nadal's wishes, they continued their practice sessions as usual, striving for improvement in the same way one of tennis’ greatest icons continues to do so.

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