By: Ben Raby (www.twitter.com/benraby31)
The buzz in Rock Creek Park was palpable and the capacity crowd that came for Rafael Nadal’s much-anticipated Citi Open debut was treated to a classic.
When the dust settled, after a grueling three hours and five minutes on court, Nadal ultimately held off his first opponent, American Jack Sock, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(1), in a heart-pumping match that held every fan in the stadium on the edge of their seat until the last ball was struck.
Playing in his first match since the French Open semifinals on June 11, Nadal appeared in full command after saving three break points and taking the first set with little pushback. But the American former world No. 8 hit back in the second with deadly punches and Nadal was forced to rally from a break down in the final set.
“The match wasn’t easy,” said Nadal. “I started to suffer a little bit too much.”
Still dealing with a foot ailment that contributed to his decision to skip Wimbledon and the Olympics earlier this summer, Nadal acknowledged that he had to gut out his first match in nearly two months.
“My fitness is fine,” said Nadal. “I just need to have a little bit of less pain in the foot, honestly. That’s the truth… Of course, you need matches like this to be fitter after a month without competing. It’s about winning these kind of matches. That helps you to be better.”
Nadal’s game wasn’t flawless – not entirely unexpected given that he went nearly three weeks without even touching a racket at one point this summer – but the world No.3 also brought fans out of their seats with terrific recoveries and dazzling shot making.
One of Nadal’s best shots of the night came at a critical juncture in the final set. After trailing 1-3 to begin the third, Nadal held serve and then broke back to even the set at 3-3.
With momentum on his side and serving at 30-15 in the seventh game, Nadal attacked the net. When Sock lobbed back a return, though, Nadal suddenly had to backpedal. The 35-year-old ultimately came through with an over-the-shoulder put-away volley for the winner. The crowd responded accordingly, rising to their feet in unison.
It was the same reaction Nadal received from the crowd in the first set when he successfully executed a back-to-the-net tweener to keep a point alive that he’d eventually win.
Soon after the epic content, the Spaniard acknowledged how much the enthusiasm of the crowd and overwhelming energy he has been receiving around the city contributed to his victory. Nadal was playing in the U.S. for the first time since winning the 2019 U.S. Open.
“A beautiful night in terms of energy, in terms of the crowd,” said Nadal, who was competing in the U.S. for the first time since the 2019 U.S. Open.
“The support of the city since I arrived here is one of the most that I ever had in my career.”
Chants of "Let's Go Rafa" briefly took over Stadium Court in the third set, as Nadal overcame his ailing foot, dug deep, and chugged on to the Round-of-16.
With capacity crowds expected for the remainder of the tournament, Nadal will again be the headliner on Stadium Court tonight. The top seed will face No. 14 seed Lloyd Harris, of South Africa.
While Nadal was stretched to the limit in his opening match, Harris reached the Round of 16 after his opponent Tennys Sandgren was forced to retire with a rib injury with Harris leading, 6-4, 1-0.
Nate Chura contributed to this article