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Rafael Nadal Wins First Clay Court Match In 681 Days, Defeating Flavio Cobolli In Barcelona | TheSportsDay Rafael Nadal Wins First Clay Court Match In 681 Days, Defeating Flavio Cobolli In Barcelona | TheSportsDay

Rafael Nadal wins first clay court match in 681 days, defeating Flavio Cobolli in Barcelona

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 16: Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his first round victory over Flavio Cobolli of Italy on day 2 of the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell 2024, 71º Trofeo Conde de Godo at Real Club De Tenis Barcelona 1899 (RCTB) on April 16, 2024 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal defeated Flavio Cobolli in his first competitive match in over 100 days, and his first clay court match in 681 days. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal is the king of clay courts, and after nearly two years, he’s finally back where he belongs: playing a match on beautiful red clay.

Nadal won his Round 1 match at the Barcelona Open on Tuesday, defeating world No. 62 Flavio Cobolli 6-2, 6-3. And while it was just Round 1, it was a vitally important match for Nadal. Due to several injuries, it was the first time he’s played a competitive match on clay, his best surface, in nearly two years. The last time Nadal competed on clay, it was the final of the 2022 French Open, which he won.

Tuesday’s contest was also the first competitive match he’s played since January, when he was forced to pull out of the Australian Open with a minor muscle tear in his hip.

Against Cobolli, the 37-year-old Nadal looked excellent. Maybe not as eager to give up his body to save a shot as he once was, but there wasn’t a single moment he was in trouble or out of control. Cobolli, who is 21, looked a bit surprised to be so handily beaten by a guy 15 years his senior who hadn’t played on clay in nearly 700 days. But Nadal knows clay as well as he knows tennis itself, and he looked at ease sliding around the court. In short, he looked like Rafa again.

Nadal’s journey back to the court has been long. After winning the first two majors of 2022, he struggled with injury and inconsistency to close out the season. Nadal’s 2023 began with a second-round loss at the Australian Open, and that’s also pretty much when it ended. A hip injury that hampered him during that match snowballed into an all-consuming issue, which caused him to miss the the entire rest of the season.

A native of Spain, Nadal has always been comfortable playing in Barcelona. He’s won 12 titles there over the course of his career, so there’s no better place for him to get back into rhythm. He knows these courts well, and he’s playing on his favorite surface. His goal is to play again at Roland Garros next month (where he’s won a mind-bending 14 titles), and if he can continue to avoid injury, he’ll be able to do that — and maybe more.

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