If you ever had any doubts about the power of star players in tennis, one look at the stadium in Viña del Mar this afternoon would have dispelled them. In recent years, the 250-level event has struggled to fill seats on most days, but that wasn’t the case for Wednesday afternoon’s second-rounder between Rafael Nadal and Federico Delbonis. Even before the players reached the court, every seat was taken and most fans were sitting at attention in the bright sun. Why can’t every day on the tour look like this one?
No men’s match, in fact, had looked quite like this one for seven months. That’s how long it had been since 11-time Grand Slam champion Nadal had last played singles. Would you have known it from the way Rafa started against Delbonis? Yes, you would have. For the better part of the first three games, Nadal was mired in rust. It was his opponent, also a lefty, who was pushing him all over the court. Delbonis, a 22-year-old Argentine ranked No. 128, broke Nadal with heavy topspin forehands in the first game, and followed it up with a love hold. When Rafa stoned a wide-open backhand volley long to go down 0-30 in the third game, it appeared that the road back was going to be a little longer and bumpier than we had anticipated for Rafa, even on clay. Nadal, who had the area below his left knee strapped, struggled with his movement along the baseline, and struggled to keep his shots from sitting up in the middle of the court. And he was sweating like crazy.
But just as we were getting ready to declare this the Year of Delbonis, Nadal began to remind us why he’s known as the King of Clay, while the Argentine began to show us why he isn’t. Rafa hit an ace to hold for 1-2, Delbonis double-faulted on the first two points of the next game, and soon we were all even. Then Nadal was ahead. Then he was ahead by a lot. The key moment came with Delbonis serving at 3-4. Nadal had four break points but was a little too tight to capitalize—on one of them, he was late on a forehand pass that you rarely see him miss. A better opponent would have shut the door and held serve, but Delbonis couldn’t do it. Instead, on game points, he missed easy backhands and watched his drop shots die in the net. Nadal finally broke with a pretty backpedaling forehand winner down the line. A leap and a fist-pump later, and he was off to the races. He would lose just two more games in a 6-3, 6-2 win.
It was a solid first effort for Nadal; he had to sweat and work and run, but he was never seriously threatened. He served well, found his forehand in the first set and his backhand in the second, and hit his overhead as if he had never been away. And he tossed in a few very nice forehand drop shot winners for good measure. Where he didn’t look quite the same was in his movement. Delbonis caught him with drop shots of his own, and Nadal had more trouble generating pace while he was on the run than normal.
The road may not be quite as long as it looks for Rafa, but it will still take a while before we see him in full “Vamos!”ing flight. The next step comes Friday, against the winner of two of his fellow Spaniards, Albert Montanes and Daniel Gimeno-Traver. The crowd should be ready.