Alex de Minaur has missed out on the chance of a lifetime to beat Rafael Nadal on clay in successive tournaments, blown away by the rejuvenated, emotionally-charged Spanish great in the Madrid Open.

The Australian number one, looking a shadow of the player who swept aside Nadal in the Barcelona Open in straight sets 10 days earlier, seemed tight and a mite distracted in the face of the passionate support for the home favourite in the Caja Magica on Saturday as he succumbed 7-6 (8/6), 6-3 in their second-round encounter.

But for the 37-year-old Nadal, cheered on by Spanish king Felipe VI and footballing royalty in the shape of Zinedine Zidane, there were moments of his vintage best as he blasted spectacular winners past the fleet Sydneysider in a two-hour demonstration that no-one can write him off on the surface he adores.

King Felipe VI of Spain sits between other dignitaries in the crowd at Rafael Nadal's match

King Felipe VI of Spain was in the crowd for Nadal’s win over de Minaur.(Getty Images: Carlos Alvarez)

In just his fourth competitive match since Nadal’s latest three-month injury lay-off, de Minaur was hot favourite to repeat his Barcelona win, make it three victories on the trot against the Spanish legend and become the first man to knock him out of successive tournaments since Roger Federer achieved the rare feat in 2017.

But in what’s been billed as a farewell to Madrid, the match felt much more like a reawakening as Nadal changed tactics, peppering de Minaur with plenty of high-looping, spinning shots that ensured the uncomfortable-looking Aussie world number 11 couldn’t get into any rhythm.

Increasingly frustrated and evidently feeling like he was the sacrifice in the seething bullring that was the Manolo Santana Stadium, de Minaur chucked in 33 unforced errors.

But the victory left Nadal beaming after all his recent gloomy comments about the state of his fitness.

When asked if it was a sign that he was close to getting back to his best, he just smiled: “No, not yet no, I need time.

“For moments, with a good level of tennis, I was able to do positive things but I’m still on an up. I’m super happy now to be able to be competitive against a great player like Alex for over two hours, it means a lot to me.”

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But he didn’t want to make bold predictions so soon in his comeback.

“I don’t know, I really believe tennis hasn’t been an issue the last two years, more the physical issues.

“If I’m able to play weeks in a row, and play tennis, I’ll see how far I can go and see how competitive I could be. But step by step, let’s see how I recover really.”

The key to victory came in the opening set tie-break when de Minaur saved four set points and looked set to spoil the fairytale, only for Nadal to conjure up an amazing backhand cross-court winner to earn a fifth set point, which he took after a 76-minute battle.

From there, he earned a quick break in the second set and de Minaur seemed frazzled by the time he served a double fault to gift the win to Nadal on match point, the Spaniard’s first victory over a top-20 player since 2022.