Not long before everything became about Carlos Alcaraz, Rafael Nadal was the story in men’s tennis this year. He had only just taken his first uncertain steps back from a near six-month layoff when, suddenly, he was spectacularly lifting the Australian Open trophy, compiling a 20-match winning streak and embarking on the best start to a season in his 20-year career.
Yet as quickly as fortunes can change and momentum can unexpectedly build in tennis, so too can it all collapse. This week at the Italian Open, Nadal finds himself in a starkly different position as he continues to navigate his return to form after being out for six weeks following the fractured rib he suffered from in the final of Indian Wells. In his first match in Rome, Nadal overcame a complicated start before finishing strongly to defeat John Isner 6-3, 6-1.
The overall goal against Isner’s often impenetrable serve is simple for all: take care of your own service games at all cost, then land enough returns to eventually have a chance in his own. But Nadal’s lack of sharpness nearly cost him. At 3-3, under minimal pressure, careless errors caked his game and Isner held two break points. Nadal was cagey on both, just hoping for Isner to miss, and he was fortunate that Isner obliged with two poor, early unforced errors.
Just one substandard game puts anyone in trouble against Isner but Nadal took strength from his subsequent recovery and he immediately broke serve himself. The match quickly shifted and after sealing the first set, he flitted through the rest of the encounter, serving and returning well enough, maintaining his groundstroke depth and limiting his errors as he eased to victory.
As a bitter fight for a record-extending 14th French Open title looms on the horizon for Nadal, he needs as many matches as possible against difficult opposition who rise to the occasion. Having been satisfied in Madrid last week even after his quarter-final loss to Alcaraz, Nadal believes that he has started from scratch.
“My body is like an old machine,” Nadal said on Monday. “To put this machine on again it takes some time. It’s not the same when you are 19 than when you are almost 36, with all the issues that I went through in my tennis career.”
While his first three months of the season were testament to how quickly form can return after an injury, Nadal distinguishes the two circumstances by his preparation; he at least had time to train and build up his confidence in the off-season, whereas he says that this time he has rushed back as soon it was physically safe to do so. Finding his feel and confidence will take time, yet the French Open begins a week on Sunday.
Moments after the match was won, there was little surprise to see Nadal, still wearing his match attire, appear on the vacant practice court adjacent to the raging battle between Alex de Minaur and Tommy Paul. Nadal trained for another half an hour and then he was gone.
“I talked very clearly since I came back that I am in a little bit of a rush, that I have to find as soon as possible the best feelings. I need to recover things that I missed because of the injury, of course,” he said of his additional session.
“The only way for me to give myself a chance to recover the level that I want to recover, or I want to reach, is to work.”
He will return to work on Wednesday against the ninth seed, Denis Shapovalov, in the third round. Meanwhile, Iga Swiatek, the world No 1, extended her winning streak to 24 matches with a 6-3, 6-0 win over Elena-Gabriela Ruse.