Rafael Nadal makes winning return at Barcelona Open and says he has ‘no pain’

Rafa Nadal
Rafael Nadal returns to action with a comfortable victory at his beloved Barcelona Open in his farewell year as a professional - PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

Rafael Nadal enjoyed a straightforward homecoming at the Barcelona Open after 102 days on the sidelines, but questions about his physical state remain.

Before Tuesday, 22-time major champion Nadal had not played a competitive tennis match since January at the Brisbane Open. Hip and abdominal injuries have affected him ever since, curtailing what is expected to be his farewell season.

After pulling out of last week’s Monte Carlo tournament, 37-year-old Nadal was adamant about returning on the clay in Barcelona, where he has won 12 times and even the main court is named after him.

That supremacy was clear to see on Tuesday, not only in the way he eased back into competitive tennis in a 6-2 6-3 win, but also in how his 21-year-old Italian opponent, Flavio Cobolli, crumbled in his presence.

But this was far from a flawless outing as, against a stronger player, Nadal’s underpowered serve may well have struggled. Nadal has hardly been able to serve for two months, due to that abdominal injury, and he freely admitted he was holding back against Cobolli.

His first serve speed averaged at 102 mph – well below the 117mph tour average and much slower than his own 113mph from the start of the year. That shot may fare far worse on Wednesday, when he plays Australia’s Alex de Minaur, who is currently sixth in the ATP race. 

“I’ve gone months without being able to serve, [and] although I’ve got a lot of excitement to play here and do the best I can, I’m not going to go crazy with the serve,” Nadal said in an on-court interview. “I have to serve with caution that the moment I’m in dictates.”

Later he added: “For me the main thing is to have the chance to grow. To do things today that give me the possibility to play better today, but don’t give me the possibility to play the next day or couple of days, in Madrid or Rome, probably will not be smart... It’s going to be work every day to keep discovering what’s the limit, and how much I can push on everything – not only on the serve.”

Nadal said he felt “no pain” on Tuesday but urged caution all-round, including when he heard that Stefanos Tsitsipas – who arrived in Barcelona on Tuesday fresh from securing his third Monte Carlo title – told the press that he considered the Spaniard to be the favourite. “That’s a stupid answer,” Nadal said bluntly. “I know he says it in respect to what I’ve done at this tournament, but everyone knows I’m not the favourite.”

To Nadal, the main aim is to get through this week without injury. Balancing that with the fiery competitive spirit he is known for is not a task he has found easy in the past, though. This was his first match on clay in nearly 700 days. His last saw him claim his 14th trophy at Roland Garros in 2022, but he left Paris on crutches after pushing his chronic foot injury to its very limits. The two years that have followed have been brutal, as long months of rehab have been rewarded with very little time on court.

On Tuesday Nadal’s adoring fans in Barcelona were basking in the joy of their hero’s return, granting him a standing ovation before a ball was even hit. He was not perfect, and he hit some wild forehands, but a trademark fist pump and “Vamos!” after pinging a forehand winner down the line was more than enough to delight this eager crowd.

Now with retirement in his sights, he can only hope his body holds up for this final hurrah, especially on the clay. But he will have to fight his instincts to do so.

”Trying to make logical [choices] when you are competing, and competing in places that have been super special emotionally, for me it’s super difficult. Today I was able to manage, because I was more or less in control. Let’s see if I am able to keep managing them tomorrow.”

05:45 PM BST

A flavour of what he’s still got

05:36 PM BST

Nadal on holding back on his serve

05:33 PM BST

Rafa Nadal speaks briefly to Sky Tennis

Happy to start with a victory. I enjoyed some unforgettable moments here so now I’m just having fun and happy to start with a victory without a doubt.

I tried to come back a lot of times in my career, every time it’s more difficult and especially when you are at an advanced age it’s even tougher.

I’m going through some tough moments but at the same time when I am able to be on the tour for a few days able to play and practise with the guys and compete a little bit means a lot to me. It’s still enjoyable enough to keep doing it.

05:23 PM BST

Nadal wins 6-2, 6-3

That was about the perfect comeback from Nadal. His forehand seemed to be in good shape, his footwork good and his handwork as deft as ever. Never really mastered his serve nor went full tilt with it but then again, he did not need it to be flawless today.

Spain's Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Italy's Flavio Cobolli during the ATP Barcelona Open
Nadal comes back with a bang in front of an adoring crowd - PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

05:21 PM BST

Nadal 6-2, 6-3 Cobolli

Nadal looks as if he has plenty in the tank as he stays in a rally until he wears Cobolli down at love-30, interrogating his technique until he makes an error. There’s a gasp though when an error of his own yields the first of his match points ... but he takes the second when he manipulates Cobolli into the very extent of his backhand court and he fires his attempt to hang in into the net.

Game, set and match Nadal.

05:18 PM BST

Nadal* 6-2, 5-3 Cobolli (*next server)

Too much, too little, too late from Cobolli who holds to love for the second time in this set. A crunching serve and well-placed forehands take him to 5-3. He took too long to get going against the Clay Goat but there are genuine signs that he can be a top 30 player.

05:14 PM BST

Nadal 6-2, 5-2 Cobolli* (*next server)

Nadal delights his fans with a sliding forehand/smash combo which shows that he cam still make the ground from wing to wing and play overheads without worrying about intercostal problems. At 40-15, he defends from the baseline until he invites Cobolli to play a millionaire’s shot which he pumps too long.

05:11 PM BST

Nadal* 6-2, 4-2 Cobolli (*next server)

Cobolli pulls out a perfect service game from nowhere to hold to love, sealing it with a wonderful forehand winner that arced low over the net and clipped the line.

05:06 PM BST

Nadal 6-2, 4-1 Cobolli* (*next server)

Nadal’s wrist power, manipulating his forehands deep into the corners from the centre of the court, is phenomenal. But after one such winner, he proves his mortality with a loopy backhand that sails out to make it 15-all.

A forehand drop shot winner puts Nadal 30-15 up and Cobolli then nets his return before firing a backhand too long to put Nadal two games away from victory.

05:02 PM BST

Nadal* 6-2, 3-1 Cobolli (*next server)

Cobolli wastes a very good chance of going 30-love up with a shonky backhand drop that is smothered by the net. Nadal turns the tables by working Cobolli from coast to coast, forcing him ever wider to recover until he can’t keep his forehand in. Another unforced error gives Nadal break point which Cobolli hands him on a plate with a double fault.

04:57 PM BST

Nadal 6-2, 2-1 Cobolli* (*next server)

Nadal’s second double fault gives Cobolli a sniff with two break points. Nadal can’t defend the first of his second serve, pushing his backhand drive up the line too wide.

Hmmm ... didn’t see that coming but there did seem to be a dropping off in physical intensity.

Cobolli breaks back.

04:54 PM BST

Nadal* 6-2, 2-0 Cobolli (*next server)

Nadal’s ability to switch from defence to attack imperturbably with the flick of a Pinball Wizard’s wrist never ceases to amaze and he pulls a gorgeous forehand winner from deep and wide in his ad court out of the bag to move to love-30. And two unforced errors give Nadal the break. The consensus seems to be that he is pushing it too far, that he ought to play more defensively to extend the rallies before going for extravagant, high tariff winners that compromise his precision.

I case you’re wondering where Cobolli is, all 18 of the photos filed so far by the leading picture agencies are of Nadal, like below:

Nadal dominant on clay again - Pedro Salado/Getty Images

04:48 PM BST

Nadal 6-2, 1-0 Cobolli* (*next server)

Cobolli is a grunter and emits a series of sounds like lowing cattle until he sets himself up for a forehand, crosscourt winner to tie Nadal’s service game at 15-all. Nadal then gives him a geometry lesson by hitting a remarkable winner from the centre of court to paint the line.

But better signs from Cobolli to hang in a rally and wait for Nadal’s error to earn his first break point ... which Nadal defends with a cute. sliced drop that just gets over the net, leaving Cobolli a metre short as he charged in from the back-court.

Nadal taps the debris off his shoes with his racquet and closes out the hold by virtue of a kicking serve and a Cobolli error on his backhand.

As first sets go, that would have been exactly what Nadal hoped for. Nothing too strenuous, an opener with fairly quick points and completed inside 45 minutes. Crucially there was no pressure on his own serve, the shot that will be most scrutinised after his abdominal injury. He faced zero break points and got away with some relatively underpowered second serves.

Nadal hit a few rusty forehands, but after 103 days on the sidelines perhaps that was to be expected. It didn’t take long for him to start ripping forehands and he even chased down a couple of short balls early on, which quickly put off Cobolli trying that tactic again.

Goes without saying but the crowd here absolutely adore him. He got a standing ovation when he arrived and there are even a few neighbours stood watching from the terraces of their apartments which overlook the court. Lucky for some.

04:39 PM BST

Nadal* 6-2 Cobolli (*next server)

Really enjoying himself now, Nadal. Two terrific returns earn him a 15-30 lead, the second setting up a smash which, as the commentators on Sky Tennis say, you can take to the bank with Rafa. But Cobolli fights back to 40-30 with better serves until Nadal hits a wonderful backhand, crosscourt winner.

At deuce, Nadal mesmerises Cobolli with his big kicking returns to move to set point and he clinches it at the first attempt at the end of a long rally of penetrating backhands until Cobolli cracks and chops his backhand into the net. That was his 27th unforced error. The crowd cries ‘Vamos!’

04:34 PM BST

Nadal 5-2 Cobolli* (*next server)

After almost 20 years of blogging Nadal matches, one can sometimes take him for granted, become a little jaded by the sheer amount of time he takes to ready himself. But after not seeing him for such a long time, to watch the old familiar tics, the hitch of both shoulders of his shirt, making sure any wisps poking out beneath the bandanna are swept behind each ear, the touch of the nose, are surprisingly endearing.

Nadal holds to love with the old familiar ease.

04:30 PM BST

Nadal* 4-2 Cobolli (*next server)

Nadal has done a number on Cobolli, both with his game and mentally. Cobolli has resorted to taking risks with shots to nothing, even off his own serve but when one comes off, as it does at 15-30 down, a lovely back-hand drop winner, it’s great to see.

But his first serve is all over the place and keeps Nadal interested and in the game. He is imparting lots of flight on his backhands, inviting Cobolli to try to go for forceful forehand winners which eh defends immaculately until he draws the error.

Cobolli defends a first break point with his first ace. Nadal swiftly earns another by forcing him wide on the right. Cobolli digs in again to tie it up at deuce ... but then double faults by trying to trick Nadal with a wide second serve he doesn’t get right. Advantage Nadal.

Cobolli gives Nadal a taste of his own torture with a deep, wide serve that Nadal can’t get back over the net and then Nadal hooks a running forehand from the baseline too deep. Cobolli holds with another blistering serve.

Nadal in Prince's favourite colour
Lilac time for Nadal - PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

04:20 PM BST

Nadal 4-1 Cobolli* (*next server)

Nadal binds Cobolli in his web, pushing him wide, forcing him ever deeper, then punishing him with unreturnable forehands. He races into a 40-love lead until Cobolli resorts to sheer power to take a point. It’s not enough of a platform, though, as Nadal reaches for the brutal kick serve that Cobolli has to fend back from chest height as he leaps, understandably losing control of the direction.

04:16 PM BST

Nadal* 3-1 Cobolli (*next server)

Imperious backhand drop shot from Nadal, arcing in to out up the line makes it 15-all after a solid start from the Italian on service. Nadal’s second attempt at a drop shot, all feel, cuts the ball deeper than Cobolli anticipated and with two-thirds of the court to aim for with his back-hand, swipes it too far: 15-30. Nadal earns two break points with a fierce forehand but Cobolli defends the first on the back of a kick-serve. He defends the second, too, with a blistering forehand crosscourt off Nadal’s powerful return.

He pushes Nadal wide with his serve at deuce then hits a gorgeous winner, crosscourt off his forehand that drops 3m short of Nadal.

Nadal brings it back to deuce by pouncing on an error in predatory fashion then tortures him with a series of crosscourt, deep forehands until Cobolli breaks and nets with his backhand. Third break point for Nadal. And he takes it by coming to the net to push Cobolli very deep and ultimately misjudge his attempt at a backhand pass.

Nadal breaks serve.

Rafa Nadal
Nadal is back and thriving on clay - PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

04:08 PM BST

Nadal 2-1 Cobolli* (*next server)

Clever play from Cobolli to surprise Nadal with a forehand after a long rally to make it 15-all but he then screws a double-handed backhand cross-court too far. Nadal’s forehand hooks a straight drive too long to make it one step forward one step back in this game but takes the next point by eliciting a poor return. Nadal seals the hold with a high-kicking forehand that Cobolli pumps into the net.

All with serve so far. Nadal is moving pretty well and his serve is hitting 166kph.

04:03 PM BST

Nadal* 1-1 Cobolli (*next server)

Cobolli seems far more nervous than Nadal, understandably, starting with a double fault but then nails a first serve to tie it up at 15-all and take the lead when he pushes Nadal far back enough with a forehand to draw an error.

Nadal frames a backhand return to make it 40-15 to the Italian who wraps up the game with a serve and approach salvo.

04:00 PM BST

Nadal 1-0 Cobolli* (*next server)

Cobolli wins the first point on Nadal’s second serve, Nadal swiping a forehand too long. Then Nadal double faults to make it love-30 which provokes a lot of supportive applause and chants. It does the trick as he lands his first serve, pins Cobolli behind the baseline and waits for the backhand error. Nadal levels it at 30-all with an Aztec Camera serve (deep and wide and tall), the wins the next point with a fast serve up the centre-line that Cobolli can’t get back over. 40-30. Nadal holds to 30 when Cobolli nets a backhand. Decent start after three months’ absence since Brisbane.

03:55 PM BST

Right, here we go

Cobolli has elected to receive but there has been a short delay for the Italian to have some re-strung racquets delivered to the court.

03:50 PM BST

Rey del clay

03:49 PM BST

As the players are photographed and begin to knock up

Here are a few more snippets from Nadal’s press conference:

Asked if he could envisage such a painful journey, he conceded:

Well, no but the day after Roland Garros I have been on crutches so that’s the truth.

In 2022 I cannot and I was not able to think about how long it would take me to be back playing in a clay-court tournament because at the time I was enjoying the title of Roland Garros and trying to be ready for the next event.

That is what I have been doing my whole life. To think about what is going on day-by-day and just try to adapt to the situation, try to be able to improve under any circumstances to be a better player. That is what I did all my life and it worked well.

Now I am in a different perspective of my tennis career, a different moment and I am trying to enjoy every moment.

I was not able to spend a lot of days on tour over the last two years, so I just want to enjoy every day I am able to play with the guys on a professional level. That means a lot for me.

03:45 PM BST

The crowd packs into Pista Rafa Nadal

For the hero’s return. And out he comes for the knock-up wearing pink and lilac. He has been singles champion here 12 times. Flavio Cobolli has climbed to 64 in the rankings this year but his only notable scalp on the hardcourt swing last month was Britain’s Cameron Norrie in Miami.

03:13 PM BST

Rafael Nadal makes first professional clay appearance since 2022

Rafael Nadal makes his long-awaited return to action this afternoon when he will face Flavio Cobolli on the Spanish clay in round of 64 of the Barcelona Open.

Nadal has been ravaged by injuries in recent years and last May announced his intention to retire at the end of this season.

The farewell tour for the 22-time major tournament winner has failed to go to plan though, after he had to pull out of the Australian Open in January due to a hip injury and subsequently missed ATP 1000 events in Indian Wells and Monte Carlo.

However, the 37-year-old will play at the Barcelona Open, where there is a court named in his honour against Italian youngster Cobolli, which will represent his first professional tie on clay since his 2022 Roland Garros triumph.

“No, I can’t give you an injury update because the list is long and I just want to think about what can happen,” Nadal said on Monday. “I can only tell you that today I feel myself, enough good to be on court tomorrow and that for me is so important.

“It means a lot to me to be able to play one more time here in Barcelona, a place that I have amazing success and a lot of unforgettable memories.

“So, I am just trying to enjoy every moment and I am excited about being on court in a professional tournament again, especially here at home.”

Nadal has won this tournament a record 12 times but has only managed three competitive matches in 2024.

He did recently take part in an exhibition with compatriot Carlos Alcaraz, who will miss this week’s ATP 500 event due to a forearm injury.

Nadal, world No 644, has battled with his fitness for several years and was on crutches a day after his last major victory at the French Open in 2022, which was followed by injury-hit appearances at Wimbledon and the US Open before he barely featured last year.

This appearance in Barcelona does at least raise the prospect that he could participate at Roland Garros next month and later this year when it hosts the tennis tournament for the Paris Olympics.

Nadal is due on court no earlier than 3pm, once the round of 32 match between Andrey Rublev and Brandon Nakashima has concluded.