ROME (AP) — For a brief stretch on Thursday, Rafael Nadal looked every bit of a weary 37-year-old player nearing retirement.

Struggling to produce pace off both sides with his groundstrokes, committing an uncharacteristically high number of unforced errors and unable to stay in rallies, Nadal dropped the first set of his first-round match at the Italian Open against Belgian qualifier Zizou Bergs.

Then the fist-pumping, virtually-unbeatable-on-clay, 22-time Grand Slam champion version of Nadal emerged and the Spaniard rallied for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory before an adoring crowd in what will likely be his final tournament at the Foro Italico.

Nadal was playing only his 10th match this year after missing nearly all of 2023 with a hip injury that required surgery. He’s hoping to be competitive one last time at the French Open, where he is the record 14-time champion.

“That was not my best match. I was practicing better than how I played today, without a doubt. But I found a way to win,” Nadal said. “That’s so important at the beginning of the tournament. For me, it’s normal.

“My game is more unpredictable than before,” Nadal added. “I didn’t play much tennis for the last two years. So I’m up and down, on and off, but I think I can do it much better than what I did today and I hope to do it the next round.”

Rome, where he is a record 10-time champion, is Nadal’s last big warmup tournament before Roland Garros starts on May 26.

During his 70th win in the Italian capital, the Campo Centrale crowd serenaded Nadal with chants of: “Ole, Ole, Ole, Na-dal, Na-dal.”

“I’ve always been emotional to play here, these kind of events are the most important events in my tennis career,” Nadal said. “The crowd has been always amazing with me, supporting me since the beginning of my tennis career. So I’m super excited to be able to play one more time here.”

Nadal was coming off a straight-set loss to 31st-ranked Jiri Lehecka in the fourth round of the Madrid Open. But he has never lost consecutive matches on clay in his entire career and now that impressive statistic remains intact during what he has indicated is his final season on tour.

Nadal got out to a strong start, unleashing a 95 mph (153 kph) forehand winner en route to an early break and a 3-1 lead in the first set. But he gave the break right back in the next game when he missed three weak groundstrokes into the net.

Then at 4-4, Nadal double-faulted twice and was broken again to give the 108th-ranked Bergs a 5-4 lead and a chance to serve out the set.

In the first set, Nadal committed 16 unforced errors to Bergs’ 10.

During the first game of the second set, the match was briefly suspended when a spectator in the stands required medical treatment. That allowed Nadal to chat with Carlos Moya, his coach.

After the 10-minute suspension of play, Nadal raced out to a 3-0 lead in the second set as he upped the power on his shots and became more aggressive.

During the third set, Nadal managed to win a point after he fell to the red clay, quickly getting up to resume the rally and then producing a delicate drop-shot winner. Then he blasted a forehand cross-court winner to break for a 3-1 lead and unleashed a double-clutch fist pump.

There were more fist pumps when Nadal rallied from 0-40 on his serve to hold for a 4-2 lead in the third.

Nadal’s mother and sister sitting behind the court shouted encouragement and his 1-year-old son was also court-side — sitting on the lap of Nadal’s father.

The Nadal family can now look forward to a second-round matchup with seventh-seeded Hubert Hurkacz. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic is on the opposite side of the draw, while second-ranked Jannik Sinner and third-ranked Carlos Alcaraz both withdrew because of injuries.

In other matches, Serbian qualifier Hamad Medjedovic beat Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-2; Thiago Seboth Wild defeated French qualifier Gregoire Barrere 6-4, 6-2; and Dominik Koepfer eliminated Andrea Vavassori 6-4, 6-3.

In women’s play, former No. 1 Angelique Kerber ousted 17th-seeded Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 6-0.

Other matches were suspended because of rain.

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