Nadal sets up de Minaur clash as Popyrin exits

With a crosscourt forehand that forced his opponent to return into the net Rafael Nadal has completed a highly successful return to action.

The 22-time grand slam winner had not been seen on court since making a brief comeback in Brisbane in January, his only tournament since the Australian Open in January 2023. He had not played on a claycourt since winning the French Open title for the 14th time in June 2022.

But on a court named after himself, and backed by an adoring crowd, he brushed aside Flavio Cobolli 6-2 6-3 in one hour 25 minutes in the opening round of the Barcelona Open.

That set up a second round clash with Australian No.1 Alex de Minaur, who will provide a much tougher test than the nervous Cobolli, who made 41 unforced errors.

Though the world No.62 the Italian presented little threat to Nadal, who took less than a handful of games to shake off the rust, breaking at 2-1, then sweeping to the set in 43 minutes.

The second set was similarly quick, though Nadal, 37, did drop serve early on. However, he had already broken Cobolli and quickly restored his advantage.

"I'm just having fun, happy to start with a victory," he said on court.

"When you are at an advanced age it makes things even more tough (to come back) but to be able to continue to be on the tour for a few days and practise with the guys, and to be able to compete a little bit, it means a lot to me."

Nadal confirmed he was easing his way back. 

“I'm not going to do anything that doesn't make sense right now. I'm not going to go out there and serve like crazy. I have to take it easy because that's what's needed at the moment.”

The winner of Nadal-de Minaur will face either Daniel Altmaier or Arthur Fils in the third round after Altmaier beat Alexei Popyrin 6-3 7-6 (7-4) 

Second seed Andrey Rublev destroyed his racket at the end of a 6-4 7-6 (8-6) defeat by Brandon Nakashima that continued his poor run of form.Rublev had also lost in straight sets in the opening round in Monte Carlo and Miami, and the second round in Indian Wells.

In Munich Chris O'Connell and Aleksandar Vukic both lost in straight sets in the first round to lower-ranked opponents.

O'Connell was beaten 6-3 6-4 by Daniel Taro who, being ranked 85, is 27 places below him in the world.

Vukic lost to 6-2 6-3 Jurij Rodionov, ranked 118, 53 places lower. The Austrian will now play top seed Alexander Zverev.

Taro will meet Felix Auger-Aliassime who saved  a match point and came back from 2-5 in the final set to beat local hope Max Marterer 6-7 (5-7) 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (7-3) in a three hour, 24 minute-marathon.

"Crazy match, one of the craziest I've played," Auger-Aliassime said. "In the end, I got a bit lucky."

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