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Rafael Nadal shows no sign of problems with injured hip in exhibition loss to Carlos Alcaraz

LAS VEGAS (AP) — There has been plenty of mystery around Rafael Nadal and his health because he has played just 12 official matches since the 2022 U.S. Open.

The 22-time Grand Slam winner played an unofficial event Sunday, losing to fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz 3-6, 6-4 (14-12) in The Netflix Slam before a sellout crowd of 9,489. The 37-year-old Nadal showed no apparent sign of any issues related to his hip.

Nadal said during a courtside interview with Netflix while up 5-2 in the first set that his performance at that point was “much better than expected.”

The match was also a bit of a physical test for Alcaraz, who injured his right ankle Feb. 20 in the Rio Open. Like Nadal, he didn't show any noticeable signs of being physically limited.

The question facing Nadal now is whether he will be ready for the French Open in May. Nadal has dominated that event like no other, winning the major 14 times.

The match against Alcaraz was an encouraging sign, but Nadal said beforehand he wasn't sure what the future holds at Roland Garros and beyond.

Nadal withdrew from the Australian Open in January after suffering what he called a micro tear on his surgically repaired hip. He later skipped a tournament in Doha, Qatar.

Nadal gets another test at Indian Wells this week. It'll be his first competitive tennis since Melbourne. He was in California preparing for the hard-court event before traveling to Las Vegas to face Alcaraz.

“I need to spend more time on the tour, at least to practice with the professional players even if not playing many official matches,” Nadal said the day before the exhibition. “That's the important thing right now, is to be in rhythm again. I was not able to play the way I expected. I had to pull out from Doha, so let's see.”

Men's tennis is seeing a sort of passing of the torch. Nadal's longtime rival, Roger Federer, took his 20 Grand Slam titles into retirement two years ago. Nadal stayed on tour, but whether he adds to his Grand Slam total is a big question.

Novak Djokovic, who turns 37 in May, could be the only dominant player from that generation to still be near his peak. The world's top-ranked player won three of his 24 career major titles last year.

But, there is a younger generation of players coming onto the scene. The 20-year-old Alcaraz already has two major championships. Jannik Sinner, 22, won his first Grand Slam title by taking the Australian, beating Djokovic in the semifinals before rallying from two sets down to defeat former No. 1 Daniil Medvedev.

“I would say the game is in good hands and has been in great hands,” said eight-time major champion Andre Agassi, who was promoting the exhibition in his hometown. “We just watched and will continue to watch probably the greatest generation that certainly has ever played the game and arguably we'd be lucky if we ever anything close again.”

Agassi said he encouraged Alcaraz to learn all he can from Nadal.

“He's a guy you can say over the years has handled himself with class, dignity and also humility,” Agassi said. “It is authentically real. When you talk about the French Open, it is a lifetime away for him right now because all that matters is what he's going to do (Saturday night), what he's going to do (Sunday), what he's going to do every step of his day.”

Alcaraz said he has taken a lot of inspiration from watching Nadal over the years, particularly noting his ability to fight for every point has left an especially lasting impression. That was proven again in the exhibition when Nadal fought off five match points in the super tiebreaker.

“The way that he finds solutions when things are not going well, I think that's incredible,” Alcaraz said. “I would say that's the most I learned from him and I try to put in my own game.”

How much game does Nadal have left?

He's not even sure at this point as one of the greatest careers of all time gets closer to the end.

“It's my body more than anything else because my mind is healthy,” Nadal said. “I have a passion for what I am doing.”

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis