VINA DEL MAR, Chile (AP) — 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.
Call it the Rafael Nadal Effect.
"This country wants success and wants to be seen as successful," said tournament press officer Rafael Walker. "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 from Tuesday when Nadal opens in doubles with partner Juan Monaco. He gets a bye into the second round of singles and starts Wednesday against little-known Argentine Guido Pella, or a qualifier.
"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 on Sunday on the main stadium court, facing fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar on the other side of the net 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. And he showed off the same muscular physique when he changed orange shirts midway through practice.
The 26-year-old Nadal 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 on Saturday he's hoping for an "acceptable level" as he starts the first of three clay-court events in Latin America as warmups for a run at his 12th Grand Slam title, and an eighth at the French Open.
"This should be like the first week of Roland Garros (French Open) for him,'" said Marcelo Caro, a tennis coach who drove 150 kilometers (100 miles) from the Chilean capital Santiago to watch Nadal practice on Sunday. "In theory he shouldn't lose a set because the competition is not at his level — if he doesn't get injured."
Another injury would be a crushing blow for the Spaniard, who is just ending his longest stretch away from the game.
Several hundred fans watched Nadal practice, with Toni Nadal chatting with fans at courtside. At one point Nadal posed for photos with a baby on his lap, and autographed tennis balls, copies of his book, and t-shirts as he navigated 50 meters (150 feet) from the court to the shelter of the player's dressing room.
"Nadal is like an industry," added Caro, the tennis coach. "He generates a lot of money."
Nadal is reported to have received hefty appearance money to play in Chile, though tournament officials have not confirmed it. The venue is not ideal for a comeback. The tournament site — Club Las Salinas — located within view of the ocean is traditionally windy and often chilly.
"For the tournament, Nadal being here is unbelievable," said German player Dustin Brown. "And it's great for the players, as long as you don't have to play Nadal."
Nadal fills a need in Chile. Its long-time top player Fernando Gonzalez retired last year, leaving the country without a star. Paul Capdeville is the country's highest ranked player at 153, and he failed to qualify for the tournament. That leaves only two Chileans in the field — No. 577 Nicolas Massu, and Christian Garin, ranked 923.
Jaquelina Frez and her daughter Dalal Chahuan drove 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the nearby town of La Calera to watch practice. They will skip the tournament, partly because Jaquelina says ticket prices are too expensive.
"I know the prices have gone up from other years," she said.
Her 17-year-old daughter is an accomplished amateur player, and she talked about Nadal as a superstar, racing to the court exit after practice to snap a photo.
"He's a celebrity, and you want to see him if you like tennis, or don't like tennis," Dalal said. "He brings attention to the area and excitement to the fans."
Not to mention a boost to some local bank accounts.
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