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Preview: Darwin Blanch vs. Rafael Nadal - prediction, form, head-to-head

Sports Mole previews Wednesday's Madrid Open first-round match between Darwin Blanch and Rafael Nadal, including predictions, form and their head-to-head record.

Two generations collide in a headline Madrid Open first-round match on Wednesday, as 22-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal takes on embryonic American wild card Darwin Blanch.

While Nadal is a five-time champion at the Masters tournament, his 16-year-old foe only has one ATP Tour match under his belt so far and surely could not have envisaged such a high-profile second.


Match preview

"Guys I play Nadal wtf." A simple, hilarious and yet totally justified reaction from Blanch after learning who he would kick off his first-ever Madrid Open campaign against, as the 16-year-old posted a Snapchat selfie with the aforementioned captain and a bewildered expression on his face.

When Blanch takes to the clay against one of the icons of the sport, he will do so for just the second time on the ATP Tour, having only made his debut at the top level during the Miami Open last month, entering that ATP 1000 event as a wild card as well.

On that occasion, Blanch's debut in the big time ended in a straight sets defeat to the Czech Republic's Tomas Machac, although there were signs of promise in his performance; he saved over half of the break points he faced (6/11) and also won 63% of return points on Machac's second serve, as well as breaking the world number 50 twice.

Aside from his brief bow in Miami, the American - who achieved his best ranking yet of 1028 when the standings were updated on Monday - has competed solely at ITF level in 2024, reaching one semi-final on hard courts and one on clay, most recently getting to the last four in Telde over the weekend.

Whether Blanch will be earning his senior Grand Slam baptism this year remains to be seen, but the Florida-born teenager earned a pair of notable results in the junior major events last year too, becoming a French Open and Wimbledon semi-finalist. Now, one of the toughest tests of his senior mettle awaits.

Rafael Nadal pictured at the Australian Open on January 18, 2023© Reuters

Twenty-one years Blanch's senior, Nadal has only played four more ATP Tour matches than his fledgling foe in the 2024 season, but the Spaniard is now firmly on the comeback trail and wowed the Catalonian crowd during his long-awaited comeback at the Barcelona Open.

Rolling back the years with his returning game and shot selection, Nadal easily saw off Italy's Flavio Cobolli in round one, but 11th seed Alex de Minaur harnessed his youthful energy in the second round to defeat his returning opponent 7-5 6-1.

Nevertheless, simply by gracing the Barcelona clay with his presence and winning one encounter, Nadal has shot up 132 places in the ATP standings to a current status of world number 512 - he used a protected ranking to enter Madrid - and the upcoming tournament will mark his first Masters appearance since the 2022 Paris Masters.

Sitting on 36 titles at ATP 1000 level - second only to Novak Djokovic's 40 - Nadal has clinched five of those honours at the Madrid Open, triumphing in the 2005, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2017 editions, the most of any male player in the Open Era. Eight finals overall is unsurprisingly an all-time high as well.

The 37-year-old's worst finishes in the Spanish capital were third-round exits in 2003 and 2012 - the former year being his debut - and a shot at revenge against Barcelona conqueror De Minaur in round two will be his reward should he teach Blanch a harsh lesson on Wednesday morning.


Head To Head

Of course, Blanch and Nadal are yet to face one another on the ATP Tour, although both men share a couple of common traits on the court, as both play left-handed with a two-handed backhand.

Interestingly, Blanch has a minor physical edge on Nadal, standing two inches taller than the 22-time major winner at 6ft 3in, but with a staggering 1,293 ATP Tour matches under his belt, Nadal has played 1,292 more top-level contests than the teenager.

Furthermore, by the time Blanch was born in September 2007, Nadal had already been a professional for six years, won 23 titles on the tour - including his first three French Open crowns and maiden Madrid success in 2005 - and the American was not even a year old when his opponent became world number one for the first time.


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We say: Nadal to win in two sets

If nothing else, Wednesday's match will be a priceless experience for Blanch against one of the legendary ATP Tour players, and there were plenty of positives for the American to take from his defeat to Machac in Miami, especially on the returning side.

However, given the manner in which Nadal ruthlessly dispatched Cobolli in Barcelona, the five-time Madrid Open winner should still make light work of the 16-year-old en route to a De Minaur rematch in round two.

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Rafael Nadal pictured at the Australian Open on January 18, 2023
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