11 July 2024

Washington (AFP) – Rafael Nadal made a triumphant return from a two-month layoff on Wednesday but aggravated a foot injury and needed a third-set tie-breaker to outlast American Jack Sock and advance at the ATP Citi Open.

The 35-year-old Spanish left-hander, a 20-time Grand Slam champion making his Washington debut, dispatched 192nd-ranked Sock 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (7/1) in a three-hour thriller before about 7,000 spectators at the US Open hardcourt tuneup event.

“My fitness is fine,” Nadal said. “I need to have a little bit less pain in the foot.”

Third-ranked Nadal had not played since losing to top-ranked Novak Djokovic in June’s French Open semi-finals, skipping Wimbledon and the Olympics due to the left foot injury that hindered him in the match.

“The foot was hurting me,” Nadal said. “It was painful tonight. Hopefully it will feel better tomorrow. Winning the match helps.

“I finished the match playing better. That’s important. I hope to be ready for tomorrow.”

Top seed Nadal, chasing his 89th career title, will face 50th-ranked Lloyd Harris of South Africa on Thursday for a quarter-final berth.

Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer all enter the US Open with a men’s record 20 career Slam titles, with Djokovic trying to complete the first men’s calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.

An electric atmosphere greeted Nadal’s first US match since beating Daniil Medvedev in the 2019 US Open final and his first hardcourt match since February.

“In terms of energy, in term of the crowd, has been amazing,” Nadal said.

Nadal improved to 6-0 all-time against Sock by taking their first meeting since 2017, but needed to grind out a dramatic victory in a tension packed duel.

“These kind of matches help you get better,” Nadal said. “You need matches like this to be fitter after a month without competing.

“But that’s part of the process, so it’s something I am not worried about.

“If I’m able to improve with my foot, I think the rest of the things going to come step by step.”

Nadal took the first five points of the tie-breaker and clinched it with a forehand winner.

“I know will not be easy after a couple of months coming back from a tough situation with my foot, a couple of months without playing,” Nadal said. “But here I am. I fighted. I’m able to play again.”

Sock broke Nadal to open the final set and fought off a break point in the second game, Nadal sending a forehand just wide.

Fans yelled for a Nadal comeback, prompting Sock to blow a kiss to the crowd after a winner on his way to taking a 3-1 lead.

Nadal broke back in the sixth game, making a backhand save on a drop volley that Sock could only swat into the net to level matters at 3-3, Nadal pumping his fists and screaming in celebration.

Nadal showed maestro moments with his shotmaking, including a backhand overhead smash winner in holding the seventh game, as they battled into the tie-breaker.

– Nishikori, Nakashima win –

Japan’s Kei Nishikori stayed in Nadal’s path by downing ninth seed Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan 6-2, 7-5. The 2015 Washington champion meets British seventh seed Cameron Norrie for a possible last-eight date with Nadal.

British sixth seed Daniel Evans, in his first match since contracting Covid-19 and missing the Olympics, lost to US wildcard Brandon Nakashima 7-6 (7/1), 6-0.

Australian third seed Alex de Minaur lost to 81st-ranked American Steve Johnson 6-7 (5/7), 6-4, 6-2 and Bulgarian fourth seed Grigor Dimitrov was ousted by 65th-ranked Ilya Ivashka of Belarus 6-2, 7-6 (7/4).