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Nadal gets even with De Minaur at Madrid Open but still doubts his body can hold up at French Open

MADRID: Rafael Nadal tore his headband off, thrust his arms in the air, and soaked up the cheers. It was only a second-round win, but coming from where Nadal had been just a few weeks ago when he couldn’t even get on the court, he could have been savoring a trophy.

He had just beaten 11th-ranked Alex de Minaur 7-6 (6), 6-3 at the Madrid Open on Saturday, avenging a straight-set loss to the Australian less than two weeks ago.

Nadal is no longer aiming to add to his 92 career titles after being decimated by injuries in recent years. The 37-year-old just wants to play like Rafael Nadal, or as close to that as he can. So he is going forward game by game, measuring his efforts to avoid an injury that would likely force his definitive retirement, with the ultimate goal of being competitive one more time at next month’s French Open.

“I have been through some very difficult months when there were moments when I didn’t see the reason to continue, but I had the dream of experiencing feelings like this again and above all at home,” Nadal said. “It was incredible.”

The 22-time Grand Slam champion was cheered on by Spanish King Felipe VI, soccer great Zinedine Zidane and a raucous crowd that packed the Caja Magica to see what will most likely be the tennis great’s last tournament in Spain.

Nadal was playing just his fourth competitive match since his latest injury layoff in his farewell season.

De Minaur beat Nadal just 11 days before in Barcelona, where the Spaniard returned to the courts for the first time in more than three months. Nadal looked much better this time around.

But Nadal said being ready to play at Roland Garros, with its more demanding five-set format, is another matter, especially given the importance he has for the tournament he has won 14 times.

“Roland Garros is the most important tournament of my tennis career, and all the things that I lived there, enjoyed there, stay in my heart forever,” he said.

“So if I am not able to go on court and dream, even if it’s the minimum, minimum percentage, (then) for me doesn’t make sense to go on court. I’d prefer to stay with all the amazing memories that I have. I want to be there, and even losing, but, you know, to go on court with the chance to dream about something important.”

Nadal got a straight-set win over American teenager Darwin Blanch on Thursday, but De Minaur was much stiffer competition and the tension in the stands of Manolo Santana Stadium was palpable.

The first set saw both players break serve twice. De Minaur then saved four set points before Nadal finished him off in the tiebreak to take the lead. Nadal pressed his advantage, broke De Minaur’s first service game of the second set and closed out the victory.

“I’m super happy to be able to be competitive against a great player like Alex, play over two hours,” Nadal said after his first win over a top-20 opponent since 2022. “It means a lot to me and the atmosphere here is just a joke, so I can’t thank enough everybody here.”

Nothing less than sports royalty in his Spain, Nadal grunted out his first “Vamos!” (Let’s go!), more to himself than his staff or fans, after winning his first point. He pumped his fists after landing his hammer of a left-hand drive; he argued heatedly with the chair judge over whether or not he challenged a line call on time; he shook his head when he hit long, chiding himself for not adjusting to Madrid’s high altitude.

And the crowd ate it up, shouting “Viva Rafa!” between points and “Ole! Ole! Ole!” after his backhand winner set up match point. De Minaur double-faulted to do himself in.

Nadal has won a record five times in Madrid, the last time in 2017.

Next up will he face Pedro Cachin in the third round after the Argentine beat Frances Tiafoe 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4.

TOP SEEDS ADVANCE

Top-seeded Jannik Sinner and Iga Swiatek brushed aside their first opponents.

Sinner downed fellow Italian Lorenzo Sonego 6-0, 6-3 in the second round to improve to 5-0 against his countryman.

Third-seeded Daniil Medvedev rallied past Matteo Arnaldi 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, while fifth-seeded Casper Ruud beat Miomir Kecmanovic 6-4, 6-1.

The seventh-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas was upset 6-4, 6-4 by Brazilian qualifier Thiago Monteiro, ranked 118th. Tsitsipas won Monte Carlo this month before reaching the final of Barcelona last week.

Grigor Dimitrov, seeded ninth, lost to Jakub Mensik 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3, while Felix Auger-Aliassime, Sebastian Korda, Ben Shelton, and Alexander Bublik were among players who won.

Swiatek made quick work of Sorana Cirstea 6-1, 6-1 to reach the women’s last 16.

The top-ranked Swiatek, who lost last year’s final to Aryna Sabalenka, improved her record this season to 26-4. She will next face Sara Sorribes Tormo on Monday after the Spaniard ousted Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (0), 6-3.

Coco Gauff, seeded third, downed Dayana Yastremska 6-4, 6-1 and will next face Madison Keys.

The 2022 winner Ons Jabeur, Maria Sakkari, Jelena Ostapenko — all top-10 players — also advanced.

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