“I almost forgot about these things,” Rafael Nadal said after his 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (1) second-round win over Jack Sock at the Citi Open on Wednesday.

“These things” were the things that all of us missed about tennis since the start of the pandemic. A full house, an electric night-session atmosphere, a close match that had some fans on the edge of their seats and others out of them. Nadal had never played in D.C. before, and he has been the toast of the town since his arrival last week. It’s always special when one of the Big 3 deviates from his well-worn schedule and shows up someplace new.

Nadal was playing a U.S. opponent, but that didn’t stop the crowd from chanting “Let’s go, Ra-fa!” in the traditional American style. To be honest, the fans seemed happy just to be there, and to cheer for whatever great shots came their way. And there were quite a few in this one. Nadal made most of them early, hitting forehand winners to both corners and closing out points at net. At first, it didn’t seem that he had accumulated any rust in his two months away from the tour. Rafa even won a point after hitting a tweener.

That early burst may have been the product of irrational exuberance. By the second set, Rafa had began to falter, letting Sock’s heavy topspin get above his shoulders and sailing balls long. More concerning was the limp he began to show, and which continued through the end of the match.

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Sock played his best tennis but once again Nadal was unflappable under pressure.

Sock played his best tennis but once again Nadal was unflappable under pressure.

“I need to have a little bit of less pain in the foot, honestly,” Nadal said. “That’s the true. But physically I feel more or less OK. I know the process. I went through all this stuff many times on my career. So it’s something I am not worried about.”

Sock took advantage of Nadal’s second-set lapse. The American is ranked No. 192 now, but he has had some Challenger-level success of late, and he still has those many thousands of RPMs on his forehand. Playing with nothing to lose, and in front of the biggest audience he’s seen in years, Sock gave as good as he got for the last two sets; he must have a drilled a dozen forehands right past Rafa at the baseline. When he went up 3-1 in the third, the match seemed to be on Sock’s racquet.

But Rafa didn’t come to D.C. to lose this early, and he fought through whatever pain he was feeling. He broke with a brilliant get on a Sock drop shot, and held for 3-3 with an even more brilliant backhand smash. Nadal saved his best for the decisive tiebreaker. He hit a flick forehand winner for 3-0, a volley winner for 4-0, a drop-shot winner for 5-0, and a forehand winner for the match.

Now Rafa, who is scheduled to play Lloyd Harris on Friday, may face a difficult decision. Does he keep going at the tournament that obviously paid a tidy sum to bring him here? Or does he shut it down and not risk further injury to his foot before the US Open? Either way, he gave us a taste of what we’ve been missing on Wednesday, and showed us that “these things”—i.e., an electric evening of tennis—are still possible.