Rafael Nadal lost 6-7 (4), 4-6 to Juan Martin del Potro in the BNP Paribas Showdown in his Madison Square Garden debut Monday night in front of 15,984 deafening fans—the bigger takeaway—his knee survived the hard court:
I really enjoyed it a lot. It was an amazing experience for me playing in a huge arena like Madison Square Garden. It was an amazing feeling out there, the fans were very nice, the crowd supported me a lot, they know about tennis and it was great to play against Juan Martin tonight.
There was never any pressure on Nadal to win, but he had 1.5 million reasons to perform and entertain, as the Spaniard was guaranteed a $1.5 million fee for his participation.
He looked spry out there on the hard court, immediately crushing a backhand winner down the line to win the first point of the match.
Later in the first set, Rafa worked his way into net after a long baseline exchange, where he proceeded to hit three consecutive jump overheads, one bigger than the next with the third and final one flying wide, but his athleticism electrified the Garden crowd.
There were certainly more lighthearted moments of the evening than there were intense ones, but Nadal was moving like a deer and his serve looked exceptionally sharp—getting 68 percent of first serves in, winning 67 percent off his first serve and smacking two aces.
The expected silly moments that tend to occur in an exhibition match were also on display.
At one point, Nadal stopped his service motion to blow a kiss to an adoring fan who held up a sign and screamed his name. Shortly after that, del Potro and Rafa used their heads literally and showed off their futbol skills mid-point by rallying the ball as if they were futbol players hitting headers.
The impromptu highlight of the night came when Ben Stiller was called out by Rafa to play doubles against del Potro and a young girl that he hand-picked from the crowd. Juan Martin and the lucky girl went on to be victorious in that match within the match.
Fun and games was had by all, but Rafa showed the feverish New York crowd enough "I'm back and I'm fine" flashes.
Despite the strong positive showing on the hard court Monday night, Nadal still needs to prove himself at Indian Wells next week, but he's not getting ahead of himself.
I cannot predict the future. I have to see how the knee will last at Indian Wells next week. Having the chance to play at Indian Wells is great. I didn't know one week ago if I would be able to play at Indian Wells.
Rafa only came back a month ago after the highly scrutinized seven-month absence, but he's already won two titles, lost in the final at Vina del Mar and showed he's ready to compete on hard court again.
It's yet to be seen whether hard-court tournaments will remain a regular part of his schedule going forward, but there are a lot of positives for Nadal and his camp in his short time back on tour.
If Rafa decides that hard courts could potentially shorten his career in the long run, then tennis fans should embrace the idea of him playing out the majority of his career on clay and grass.
It wouldn't be the worst thing, and it beats the alternative of Nadal being forced into premature retirement because of poor scheduling decisions.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.