Rafael Nadal romps past Bellucci in Rio to open clay campaign
Rafael Nadal beats Thomaz Bellucci in straight sets to reach the second round of the Rio Open in Brazil
February for Rafael Nadal must feel like sinking onto a feather mattress after the rigours of the hot, hard tournaments that herald the new tennis season.
But as if the January schedule was not gruelling enough, for Nadal it has been especially taxing. He had been able to play only three tournaments, seven matches, in the final half of 2014, afflicted first by wrist and back injury and then by appendicitis.
Little wonder, perhaps, that he lost in the first round of his first tournament in Doha. It was, maybe, a little more of a surprise that he then lost in the quarters of the Australian Open, and to a man he had beaten in their last 17 matches, Tomas Berdych.
But that was to underplay both the form of Berdych this season and also the fact that Nadal, more than almost any other of the elite players, needs matches and hard yards in his legs to build his rhythm and confidence. And that is what he has missed over the last eight months.
But he has been here before. He began 2013 after months away with knee injury, and chose the clay of the South American ‘golden swing’ to make his return, beginning a remarkable come-back season with two titles from three finals through Chile, Brazil and Mexico. He would lose just one further match on his way to winning the French Open.
So few anticipated that Nadal’s slow return on the hard courts of 2015 would be any kind of form guide when he got his feet back on the red stuff where he has reigned supreme for a decade.
That he was defending champion in the Rio 500, and has not dropped a set in three previous matches against the local 26-year-old Thomaz Bellucci, did little harm to his prospects. That he owns the best clay court record in the Open era, and since 2005, a remarkable 95 percent success rate, 291-14, also helped his cause. And with 45 titles from 52 finals on his beloved surface, the title ‘king of clay’ was an appropriate one.
The conditions, it should be said, were proving brutal: the temperature in the high 30s and the humidity in the 80s. Add in a little rain—as it did right from the start of Nadal’s match—and both balls and court were unpredictable. Nadal and compatriot David Ferrer even got drenched during Rio’s Carnival during their weekend downtime. Nadal quipped: “If the temperature doesn’t drop by Tuesday I’ll have to fight to stay alive!
“It’s been tough to train these past few days, especially during the daytime. I am trying to adapt and get prepared.”
He went on: “I’m feeling well physically… I don’t know if I’m ready to win here. I’m going to try to be ready, to be competitive, to have good chances—and after that we’ll see what’s going on.”
It was from the start Bellucci who struggled with his first serve, found himself battling to hold through the opening games, and was the first to concede a break in the fifth game. But a few wayward shots from Nadal and Bellucci took the break back, and the two men exchanged another break apiece for 4-4.
Nadal, though, was not about to let Bellucci settle and stood way back in the court to return serve, began to mix things up to break the Brazilian’s rhythm, and broke again. This time, Nadal served it out, 6-4, but it had taken him the best part of an hour, picking up a time violation in the process.
The tennis had thus far been rather scrappy, with both hitting more than twice the errors to winners, but Bellucci now seemed to fall under Nadal’s spell, trying to outhit the Spaniard from the baseline but without enough variety of pace, angle and spin to make any impression—too predictable for too long.
Nadal raced to a 4-0 lead in the second set, and his confidence was palpable as he bustled between points and hustled during them. Bellucci managed one hold of serve but after another half hour of play, Nadal was into the second round, 6-1: He had made just one additional unforced error in the set.
‘The king’ may have begun rustily on the rust-coloured dust, but he was already finding his groove by the end. And one suspects he will only get better with each passing round.
Nadal was ably supported by his fellow Spaniards in the first round, the No2 and 3 seeds in the tournament. David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo are second and third on the Open era clay win list, and both got off to good starts with their own straight-sets wins.
No4 seed Fabio Fognini made heavier weather of things, saving three match points against Jiri Vesely, 1-6 7-6(7) 6-1.