NEW YORK—Rafael Nadal looked nothing if not comfortable at the start of his first hard-court match in nearly a year. On a relatively slow surface, and in an environment where less-than-100-percent effort is encouraged, Nadal was provided the time to show off his entire arsenal. His backhand, up close, was potent, not simply a rally shot. His forehand looked fantastic at times, particularly in the first game, when Rafa terminated a cross-court exchange with a down-the-line swipe. After breaking serve, Nadal traded lobs with his opponent, Juan Martin del Potro, as one is obliged to do in tennis exhibitions. Whether he was playing or "playing," Nadal looked quite comfortable out there.
So with that in mind, what should we make of Nadal's 7-6 (4), 6-4 loss to del Potro in front of a massive Madison Square Garden crowd? Instead of "not much," how about this: A lot less than if Nadal loses to del Potro by the same score sometime next week at Indian Wells.
Coming off a title run in Acapulco capped by a 6-0, 6-2 dusting of David Ferrer, Nadal could be forgiven for looking slightly weary during this late-evening contest. Rafa has kept busy since returning from a seven-month absence in South America, and today's events paraded the Spaniard around New York City.
Nadal could also be forgiven for appearing slightly cautious at times tonight, returning to the surface which has become his most threatening. Rafa scampered aplenty, but rarely took full sprints, and he pulled the trigger on his groundstrokes earlier as the match wore on. It might explain why Nadal came to net so often, much like del Potro did. Both men volleyed well, and each struck a no-look backhand smash, a shot more difficult than much of the hot-doggery on display.
The key to the outcome was the tiebreaker, which Nadal led 4-2. But del Potro took the final five points, three on Nadal backhand errors. It was a sharp turn of events, and signaled what was to come. The Argentine retained his momentum in the second set, racing to a 4-2 lead before both men held their final two service games. For Nadal, I have to think this was a satisfying effort and good practice before he (likely) plays Indian Wells. Nothing more—but definitely nothing less.
Two other things bear mentioning from this match: First, the highlight of the evening, an impromptu doubles match, with Nadal and actor Ben Stiller taking on del Potro a young girl who looked no older than 10. She was the star of the show, and not just because she was held high by del Potro and greeted warmly by Rafa at net—she earned their praise and a standing ovation with some fine volleys. She'll never forget that experience; kudos to both men for making it happen.
Second, a word about del Potro. His forehand gets top billing, and when he fires it like he did in New York City three-and-a-half years ago, it's obvious why. But watch his backhand, too. In the 2011 Davis Cup final in Seville, del Potro completely nullfied Nadal's bread-and-butter shot, his lefty cross-court forehand, with his powerful two-hander that largely determined the rallies. Del Potro won the first set, and really should have taken that match the full five. It would be Rafa's day in the end, but del Potro, as he often does, showed flashes of his Slam-winning self. I'm interested to see how Nadal fares on hard courts this month, but I can say the same for del Potro as well.