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Rafael Nadal rallies for first-round win at Italian Open

Rafael Nadal rallies for first-round win at Italian Open

ROME — For a brief stretch on Thursday, Rafael Nadal looked every bit of a weary 37-year-old player nearing retirement.

Struggling to produce pace off both sides with his groundstrokes, committing an uncharacteristically high number of unforced errors and unable to stay in rallies, Nadal dropped the first set of his first-round match at the Italian Open against Belgian qualifier Zizou Bergs.

Then the fist-pumping, virtually-unbeatable-on-clay, 22-time Grand Slam champion version of Nadal emerged, and the Spaniard rallied for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory before an adoring crowd in what will likely be his final tournament at the Foro Italico.

Nadal was playing only his 10th match this year after missing nearly all of 2023 with a hip injury that required surgery. He’s hoping to be competitive one last time at the French Open, where he is the record 14-time champion.

“That was not my best match. I was practicing better than how I played today, without a doubt. But I found a way to win,” Nadal said. “That’s so important at the beginning of the tournament. For me, it’s normal.

“My game is more unpredictable than before,” Nadal added. “I didn’t play much tennis for the last two years. So, I’m up and down, on and off, but I think I can do it much better than what I did today, and I hope to do it the next round.”

Rome, where he is a record 10-time champion, is his last big warmup tournament before Roland Garros starts on May 26.

During his 70th win in the Italian capital, the Campo Centrale crowd serenaded Nadal with chants of: “Ole, Ole, Ole, Na-dal, Na-dal.”

“I’ve always been emotional to play here, these kind of events are the most important events in my tennis career,” Nadal said. “The crowd has been always amazing with me, supporting me since the beginning of my tennis career. So, I’m super excited to be able to play one more time here.”

Nadal was coming off a straight-set loss to 31st-ranked Jiri Lehecka in the fourth round of the Madrid Open. But he has never lost consecutive matches on clay in his entire career and now that impressive statistic remains intact during what he has indicated is his final season on tour.

Nadal got out to a strong start, unleashing a 95-mph forehand winner en route to an early break and a 3-1 lead in the first set. But he gave the break right back in the next game when he missed three weak groundstrokes into the net.

Then at 4-4, Nadal double-faulted twice and was broken again to give the 108th-ranked Bergs a 5-4 lead and a…

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