VINA DEL MAR, Chile – They were giving the tickets away a year ago – and still had a difficult time attracting fans.
It’s a different story this year at the VTR Open, a small ATP clay-court tournament in this resort city on Chile’s Pacific coast. This is where Rafael Nadal has decided to make his comeback after sitting out for more than seven months with an injured left knee.
Nadal had never been to Chile, much less played an event here. Now he’s being treated like a native son with local newspapers digging up his connections to distant family members in the country. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera was one of the first to greet him when he arrived.
“This country wants success and wants to be seen as successful,” tournament press officer Rafael Walker said. “For a long time the country was like a little island, isolated from the world by the sea and mountains. So when you get a big star here – like Nadal – he’s treated like a rock star.”
The tournament is sold out starting Tuesday when Nadal opens in doubles with partner Juan Monaco. He gets a bye into the second round of singles and starts Wednesday.
“All the sponsors used to hand out tickets to clients, and they weren’t used. They will be used this time,” Walker said. “The local television stations that used to send out their second-level talent are sending out their top people. You can see them already here posing for photos with Nadal and asking for photographs. You know, acting like kids.”
Tourism officials are hoping Nadal’s appearance boosts local business, which took a hit last month with overcast skies discouraging beachgoers during the South American summer. Visitors from neighboring Argentina have also stayed away, hurt by a devaluation of the local currency that has made travel expensive.
The seven-time French Open champion practiced for almost two hours Sunday on the main stadium court, facing fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar with Nadal’s uncle Toni – also his coach – right behind him fetching balls.
The only hint that Nadal may be less than 100 percent was a white bandage wrapped around his left knee. Otherwise, there was plenty of pop in his high-bouncing forehands.
Nadal, 26, should win this event, and if he doesn’t, speculation will immediately begin about his future. He’s trying to play down his chances, telling reporters Saturday he was hoping for an “acceptable level” as he starts the first of three clay-court events in Latin America. They’re warm-ups for a run at his 12th Grand Slam title, and an eighth at the French Open.