MATCH POINT: Nadal defeats Kecmanovic

“We have to be calm, we have to accept that things are going to be far away from perfection, but then onwards we just have to fight,” Rafael Nadal said in his pre-tournament interview earlier this week in Madrid.

As any longtime tennis fan knows, these were hardly new sentiments for Rafa. Calmness, acceptance, fighting: They’ve been his watchwords for the entirety of his 20-year career

Yet his words proved to be particularly well targeted to the moment at hand on Wednesday. After fracturing a rib in Indian Wells, Nadal hadn’t played a match in more than two months, and he had only been able to practice with a racquet and a ball for a few days. He had also drawn a strong opening opponent in Miomir Kecmanovic, a young Serb who has already climbed from the 70s to the 30s in the rankings in 2022.

Nadal’s mental game plan proved to be the right one. He wasn’t perfect in his 6-1, 7-6 (4) win over Kecmanovic. He sent regulation ground strokes long. He went up a break twice in the second set, and gave it back right away both times. Instead of slamming the door down the stretch, he let Kecmanovic find his rhythm and confidence as the match progressed. But even when things got shaky in the second set for Rafa, and he teetered on the brink of a third, he stayed calm, and he fought. He pronounced himself pleased with the effort, and with his condition.

“I leave the match very very happy,” Nadal said. “You have to be sincere with yourself whenever you can. My preparation has not existed. You cannot expect great things at the beginning.

“I think in general I have done a good match. First set was very good. The second set I don’t consider it a bad set, but as I am saying, when you have been a long time without competing, it’s normal that you have up-and-downs in a match because you have to recover your routine.

“I don’t have any problems with my rib.”


In the third round, Nadal faces David Goffin.

In the third round, Nadal faces David Goffin.

You wouldn’t have guessed that Nadal had been away at all in the first set. He served big and hit with depth, and it took hm no time at all to settle back into his usual, comfortable pocket behind the baseline, where he can track down just about everything with a long slide—that’s part of his secret on clay. By the middle of the set, he was opening up and belting inside-out forehand winners and crosscourt backhand winners. His feel around the net was intact as well.

Seeing him play Kecmanovic for the first time on clay was also instructive. The Serb has been one of the toughest outs on tour this year. But faced with the mix of spin, depth, height, pace, and lefty hook that Nadal can put on the ball, Kecmanovic was taken out of his game completely. He was unable to reproduce the type of penetrating ground strokes he’d been hitting, because he couldn’t get on top of the ball, or on his front foot.

Credit Kecmanovic for finding those shots, and finding his way into the match when Nadal faltered. Kecmanovic gave as good as he got in the second set, and was just a couple of points from sending it to a decider. Yet in the end his good play may help Rafa’s recovery even more.

“Today I was able to play one hour, 55 minutes against an opponent that was playing really well in these last months, so a really good victory, a lot of value to it,” Nadal said. “So one hour, 55 minutes on court helps me a lot to reach my final goal, which is to recover my previous health and previous fitness. I’m very excited about it.”

Rafa’s excited. Anyone else hoping to win a clay-court event over the next month or so may not be.