He knows how to suffer like nobody else, but he also knows how to win. The debut of Rafael Nadal in the ATP Washington 2021 it became a titanic test of endurance. A match in which the manacorí went from more to less, hitting an impressive physical and mobility slump in the second set, but in which his fortitude in the decisive moments was too much for a Jack sock untied. The Nebraska player’s forehand bombs did not serve to break Rafa’s resistance, who ended the match between visible signs of pain but signing a final tie-break worthy of his category as top-3. Rafa survives in Washington (6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (1)).
The beginning of the first set would become a small warning of what was to come. Two winners, one with a crossed backhand and one with a very angled forehand, anticipating what would at times become the perfect storm. Of course: Nadal needed to grease the machine in the first bars of a fight in which all the corners of the track were used. Jack Sock came out ready to hit very hard, reversing with the right and playing hyper-aggressive tennis that, first, still caught Nadal on autopilot.
Only one point needed the manacorí to arm himself with the confidence and adrenaline that the game required. A point that culminated in a parallel right after launching a spectacular tweener. The stands, standing up and completely open-mouthed with the start of the duel, ended up setting Rafa on fire, who would deliver the necessary blow and be the first to break the equality of service. It cannot be said that Jack was playing badly: he stood with the backhand, tried to attack with the right hand and in many points he was the one who dominated … but, of course, on the other side of the net was Rafa.
Giving up serve when you feel like you’re playing above your average level is a huge mental slab. Sock lived it, who at the end of the first set made decisions that were too hasty, with attacks without being in position to finish the point. As if that were not enough, Nadal had opened the box of essences with his right: he managed to connect up to 11 winners with this blow, moving on the court like a boxer and successfully investing to close the points. An electrifying first quarter that Rafa pocketed by 6 games to 2.
The same wild momentum that threw Sock into the abyss in the first set was most likely what kept him alive early in the second set. When many had returned to the track absolutely defeated, feeling the harshness of a 6-2 despite being close to the sensations of his rival, the American continued to trust himself and tried to put his part in the stands, looking for spectacular shots and making use of an ally, until now, disappeared: his serve.
Indeed, Jack began to vary his selection of offensive shots much more from a serve that gave him more and more returns. Thus, at least he achieved one thing that seemed almost impossible: level the duel and allow the second set to move to the rhythm of serves. Meanwhile, the sensations that came from the other side of the court were not far from brilliant: the spectacular blows had given way to a more stocky Nadal, without throwing the right with much conviction, even unable to hammer hard on the side of Jack Sock backhand.
Rafa’s remains were beginning to fall short and the American smelled blood in the first bad game at the service of the manacorí. Like the one who does not want the thing, like the shark that approaches its prey, Sock saw the opportunity … and seized it. Full of character, screaming several times and tilting the psychological game in his favor, Jack seemed to lose his life in the duel, while Nadal became more and more listless, feeling perhaps the inactivity before the competitive adrenaline.
It already seemed a true miracle that Jack Sock had reached the third set, especially after suffering a 2-6 against in the first set. However, the American was ready to break the bank. Another strange game on Nadal’s serve, full of errors on neutral balls, especially with the right hand, gave Jack an advantage that he had to protect in time. The duel would become a true fight against himself in which Rafa was a passive spectator: he did not seek to do too much with the rest, simply wait for an implosion of his rival that was about to occur at 2-1.
He saved the furniture in that game Sock, but what the Nebraska didn’t know is that Rafael Nadal has more lives than a cat. The Mallorcan took out his winning gene, his claw, his latest efforts: visibly touched, far from the desired mobility and even implying in his gestural language that there is some kind of physical discomfort that bothered him, Rafa decided to take action and take control of exchanges. Taking advantage of every second serve (and they were quite a few, since Jack’s first serve percentage did not reach 50%) he ruthlessly attacked Sock’s backhand (something he did not do much today) and lifted the public from their seats. when he confirmed the long-awaited counterbreak.
The duel had become a cascade of emotions that intensified when, 4-3 up, a clearly touched Nadal had a break ball after being 0-40 down in the game to the rest. Sock, who did not get a first serve or in a pool, decided to reverse to the right and hit the ball with a real slap that, call it destiny or whatever you want, ended up entering and falling almost on the bottom line, forcing Nadal to duck and fail a backhand that, had it entered, would have become an automatic winner for all the gap that existed on the track.
Jack saved that game, made it 4-4 and Nadal did not fail to serve, but the reality is that those physical discomforts had turned into an intermittent limp. Sock, also visibly tired after a huge effort, needed to maintain the excellent level with his right to avoid suffering and run from the baseline, perhaps hoping for a tie-break that would become his best ally.
That tie-break came. With the clock ticking three hours into the duel and both players exhausted, with Nadal gesturing with his coaching staff and showing that he was not at 100%, with Sock standing towards the finish line almost with his heart instead of his body. Even with all that, Nadal reactivated the ‘big player’ mode: he smelled the nerves of his rival after an exaggerated failure with a second serve rest, he extended the exchanges until he made Sock see that he was not going to beat him anywhere, cementing a lead of two minibreaks in the blink of an eye.
And there was no other way to close the duel than with a right parallel absolutely magical. With a gesture more of relief than of joy, after more than three hours in his first match on the circuit since Roland Garros, Nadal closed an absolute night thriller in Washington 6-2, 4-6 and 7-6 (1). With a manifest offensive equality, practically symmetrical (both signed 41 winners), mental integrity and experience of Nadal in the important moments weighed more than any injury. Despite the incredible merit of Jack Sock, who released the right as he had not been able to for years and who never lost face to the game in terms of attitude, Rafa prevailed in his debut in the capital, closing the door to the American but not to some physical annoyances that we will see to what extent they will allow him to continue in the tournament. For now, the next station is called Lloyd Harris.