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Rafael Nadal overcomes pain, rust and big-hitting Jack Sock to survive shaky Citi Open debut

Rafael Nadal defeated Jack Sock in his first match at the Citi Open on Wednesday in Washington. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Rafael Nadal returned to competition for the first time in nearly two months Wednesday and found himself battling multiple opponents: American Jack Sock, pain in his previously injured left foot and rust from the hiatus he took to address the issue.

Over three imperfect sets that spanned 3 hours 4 minutes, Nadal weathered all challenges to advance to the Citi Open’s third round with a 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (7-1) victory.

But he acknowledged afterward that the injury remains a factor, particularly after Sock seized the upper hand and forced the contest into a third set.

An injury knocked Rafael Nadal off course -- and pointed him toward the Citi Open

“The match wasn't easy,” Nadal said. “I started to suffer a little bit too much.”

Nonetheless, Nadal managed to do what has defined so much of his storied career: fight harder than his opponent and not lose faith despite struggling with his serve and blasting an uncharacteristic number of groundstrokes long or into the net.

Nadal, 35, who is tied with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for a men’s record 20 Grand Slam titles, disclosed Sunday he had been battling an injury to his left foot, which is what forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics after his semifinal loss at the French Open on June 11.

As he slogged through the ebbs and flows of three hard-hitting sets, there were moments when the ailment seemed to hamper his movement. There were other moments in which his foot speed seemed to catch Sock by surprise as he ran down drop shots and gamely chased down lobs — including one he fired back between his legs to extend a point he ultimately won.

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In the tiebreaker, Nadal gutted through any discomfort he might have had, sprinting full out to reach a drop shot that gave him a 3-0 lead, and reasserted the grit that has defined him at critical moments of so many matches.

“I know [it] will not be easy after a couple of months, coming back from a tough situation with my foot, a couple of months without playing,” Nadal said. “But here I am. I [fought]. I am able to play again tomorrow, so that’s a great news.”

The Citi Open, Washington’s late-summer hard-court event, represents the next step in what has been a weeks-long process of recovery for Nadal, who went 20 days without picking up a racket because of the foot injury.

Since early July, the Spaniard had progressed from 30-minute practices to practicing with players at his tennis academy in Mallorca and with his coaches. The Citi Open offered the chance to practice and compete against fellow pros and get reacquainted with the velocity, spin and brute power of top-50 opponents.

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For the capacity crowd of 7,800 at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, seeing even a work-in-progress Nadal was reason to cheer.

Nadal strode out to deafening applause and a standing ovation from fans who paid upward of $500 on the resale market for a ticket to see him compete.

The match got underway on an uncommonly cool August evening for Washington, 79 degrees, with a gentle breeze and no humidity to speak of.

Barely 20 seconds into the match came the first declaration of devotion from the grandstands.

“I love you Rafa! I love you,” one female fan screamed.

The first mid-match standing ovation came 21 minutes in, after Nadal’s between-the-legs shot. It was the first hint Nadal was reclaiming his world-beating form after a shaky stretch in which he missed more than half of his first serves.

From there, Nadal started crushing his forehands with the signature toreador finish, whipping his left arm above his head. Some of the blasts were such a blur Sock didn’t bother trying to run.

Nadal seemed in full command after wrapping up the first set in 47 minutes, and Sock trudged off to the locker room for a permitted break and change of shirts.

Though Sock hadn’t been Nadal’s equal in the ragged early going, the momentum changed in the second set.

Sock broke Nadal’s serve first on back-to-back forehand errors by the Spaniard.

Serving at 3-5, Nadal staved off three break points. But Sock leveled the match at one set apiece with a service winner.

The deciding set featured the best of each man at this moment in their careers.

Sock got an early break; Nadal broke back, and he left no doubt who was the more seasoned competitor by bolting to a commanding lead in the tiebreaker.

With the victory, Nadal advanced to a meeting Thursday with South Africa’s Lloyd Harris.

If he continues to win, Nadal will play each remaining day of the Citi Open, which culminates with Sunday’s final. He would face No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in the final if both perform according to the tournament’s seeding.