Rafael Nadal isn’t playing vintage tennis – but his magic aura is still unmatchable

Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open
Rafael Nadal stunned Alex de Minaur at the Madrid Open on Saturday

For a short moment, it looked like Rafael Nadal was starting to crumble under the crushing weight of the tennis world.

A first set of tennis that had ebbed and flowed between him and Alex de Minaur had seemingly fallen in his favour, his trademark brand of pumped-up, aggressive tennis powering him into a 6-2 tiebreak lead.

But then, when the set looked clearly in his grasp, he showed he was human.

He had de Minaur scurrying at the back of the baseline, relentlessly chasing every ball, but was unable to kill the Australian off, uncharacteristically tame and tight misses handing his opponent four points in a row.

Just when it looked like he was faltering, he produced a moment of magic.

A stunning cross-court backhand almost out of nowhere ended a run of four points against him, and a long groundstroke from his opponent on the next point finally handed him a brutal first set.

It was not a vintage set of tennis from Nadal and briefly, his killer instinct deserted him, but on clay, and at home, there is always going to be an aura, almost a magic invincibility, around him.

Riding the crest of the wave, Nadal broke early in the second and ultimately broke again at the very end to claim one of the most memorable wins of his career, with the world No 512 beating the world No 11 7-6(6), 6-3.

Whether it was the test a much-improved Nadal posed or a raucous crowd largely against him, de Minaur did not appear as free or in control as he did in Barcelona ten days ago.

It was a match eerily reminiscent of Serena Williams’ final-ever win over Anett Kontaveit at the US Open two years ago; similarly to Kontaveit on that occasion, de Minaur was unusually inhibited.

The King of Spain was in attendance but the King of Clay rightfully attracted everyone’s singular focus and, if the crowd weren’t already on his side, an early controversy ensured that was the case.

The 12,000 plus packed inside the arena were just as offended as the man himself that an early line call decision – where Nadal was seemingly unaware he had to challenge – went against the home favourite.

WATCH: Rafael Nadal clashes with umpire after huge line call controversy in Madrid 

Nadal usually needed very little to get himself amped up and perhaps spurred on by his frustration, he was able to use raucous support to his advantage in a tantalisingly close first set.

This is the 22-time Grand Slam champion’s main advantage over the coming days, weeks, months, or however long he has left in his career.

His tennis is not quite at the level it once was or where it wants to be, and physically there will be questions about how he can hold up – especially over best of five sets at Roland Garros.

But throughout his career, his presence, his authoritative marching around the court between points, his physical assertation, and his vocal celebrations have managed to get in the head of many opponents.

That appeared to be the case with de Minaur today and may well be the case again and in any match left in his career, he will have huge crowd support – something that won’t be easy to play against.

Nadal will probably lose in Madrid and will probably lose if he plays at Roland Garros – but it will be so, so difficult to get over the line against him.

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