June 20, 2024
Rafael Nadal

Don't even think about calling Rafael Nadal a clay-court specialist.

Rafael Nadal says he has reached the point where he must let go of his fear of injury and “go for everything” in order to see if he will be able to perform at the highest level by the time of the French Open.

On Thursday afternoon, Nadal’s competitive spirit guided him to a narrow 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Zizou Bergs, a Belgian qualifier, in the first round of the Italian Open. He now faces a significant test against Hubert Hurkacz, the seventh seed, in round two.
“[Now] arrive[s] the moment that I need to try, I need to go for everything,” the Spaniard said. “If something happens, something happens. That’s the truth. It’s not like in Madrid, it’s not like in Barcelona, especially that I need to analyse how things are improving, to explore if I am able to adapt all these things to the new weeks.

“But that’s over and we are in Rome. I have Roland Garros in just two weeks and a half, so … arrive a moment that I need to prove myself if I am able to push my body to the limit that I need to push to feel myself ready for what’s coming.”

As Nadal faced off against Bergs, a 24-year-old ranked No 108 in the world and known for his significant presence on TikTok, he struggled to find his level early on. While the 37-year old’s unforced error count rose swiftly and he was extremely tentative from behind the baseline, Bergs stepped up to the biggest match of his career determined to take control of as many exchanges as possible by attacking his opponent’s forehand and closing down the net.

Rafael Nadal
Nadal was not happy with his performance despite winning in Italy. Photograph: Ciro De Luca/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

In just his third Masters 1000 match, Bergs showed that he is more than capable of competing on the ATP Tour. Across the three sets, though, Nadal was more consistent and he found a way to produce his best ­tennis in the important moments.

“Today was not a good match for me,” he said. “I didn’t play the way that I really think I can play and I need to play. I was able to find a way to win, and that gave me the chance to play in two days again, to show myself, especially that I can do it much better than today.”

After the match, Nadal explained that in the surgery he underwent last year, part of his psoas (hip) tendon was removed and he is still in the process of “adapt[ing] the muscles to the configuration of the hip”. But with the clay-court season at its final two big events, the Italian Open and Roland Garros, he is out of time.

“I am not talking only about Roland Garros,” the 14-time French Open champion said. “I am talking about the next match. I need to lose this fear. Matches like today help. Some moments I was moving faster. Some moments not. I need to get used to that, to take that risk. It’s a moment to [make] that happen. If something wrong happens, we going to accept it. But that’s the moment to push. I feel more ready to try it than before.”

Meanwhile, Naomi Osaka took another significant step forward in her comeback with one of her biggest results of the year. In slow, heavy conditions, the 26-year-old routinely defeated Marta Kostyuk, the 19th seed, 6-3, 6-2 to clinch her first career top-20 win on clay and reach the third round in Rome.

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