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Rafael Nadal makes winning return at Barcelona Open

Rafael Nadal makes winning return at Barcelona Open
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Rafael Nadal makes a winning return to the ATP Tour with a 6-2 6-3 success over Italy's Flavio Cobolli in the first round of the Barcelona Open.

Rafael Nadal marked his eagerly-awaited comeback on the ATP Tour with a straightforward win over Flavio Cobolli in the first round of the Barcelona Open on Tuesday.

The 37-year-old had not been seen on the court since the opening tournament of the year at January's Brisbane International, where he won both of his opening matches before going down to Jordan Thompson in the quarter-finals.

Nadal - who also missed the majority of the 2023 season with a serious hip injury - was then cruelly forced to withdraw from this year's Australian Open with a similar problem, but his latest issue did not prove to be as severe.

The Spaniard entered the ongoing Barcelona Open with a protected ranking - having dropped to 644th in the world during his injury hiatus - but he made light work of Cobolli with a 6-2 6-3 success.

Nadal - who wowed the home crowd with a selection of fine forehands - needed just one hour and 25 minutes to dispatch the Italian 21-year-old, earning his first clay triumph since beating Casper Ruud in the final of the 2022 French Open.

"I try [to bounce back] a lot of times, but every time is more difficult, especially when you are an advanced age it makes things even tougher!", the 22-time Grand Slam winner said on the court after ending his 681-day wait for another clay success. "At the same time when I am able to practice a few days and compete it means a lot to me, and it's enjoyable to keep doing."

Already boasting an unparalleled 12 titles from 12 previous Barcelona Open finals, Nadal was understandably a bit rusty early doors on Tuesday, losing his first two points on serve and committing a double fault to fall 30-0 down.

The 14-time French Open winner eventually came through that challenging early hold, though, and after squandering two chances to break Cobolli in the fourth game, the third time was the charm as he built up a 3-1 lead.

Cobolli - whose surfeit of unforced errors was proving fatal - managed to beat away four Nadal chances for a double break in the sixth game, but the world number 62 just delayed the inevitable as Nadal comfortably took the first set.

The Spaniard picked up where he left off by quickly establishing a 2-0 lead in the second, and even though Cobolli managed to belatedly earn a break back, his renaissance was short-lived as he lost serve straight away in the fourth game.

From then on, Nadal enjoyed a stress-free cruise to the finish line, and despite missing one match point with a wide forehand, the 37-year-old advanced on his second as Cobolli undercooked a cross-court backhand.

Nadal - who committed just 22 unforced errors compared to Cobolli's 41 - now faces an intriguing second-round tie with fourth seed Alex de Minaur, whom he lost in one of his four matches in 2023 at the United Cup.

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