BRISBANE, Australia — Rafael Nadal had cautioned his legion of fans to temper their expectations surrounding his “impossible” tennis comeback, and while his first professional match in almost 12 months ended in defeat, there were plenty of signs to suggest the Spanish superstar can feature prominently in what looms as his final tour Down Under.
The 22-time Grand Slam champion returned to the court for the first time in 347 days Sunday at the Brisbane International, teaming up with compatriot Marc Lopez in the men’s doubles — a combination that delivered Spain gold at the 2016 Olympic Games. However, the duo was outmatched by the all-Australian team of Max Purcell and Jordan Thompson, who won 6-4, 6-4 in just 73 minutes.
While reaching the finish line of this match unscathed should have been the first major checkbox for Nadal to tick, there were plenty of other reasons to be encouraged by his performance. Nadal, who arrived in Brisbane looking lean and fit, showed no signs of rustiness, holding his first service game inside two minutes to delight the capacity crowd.
Nadal’s mobility didn’t appear to be hampered in any way, either. He was comfortable tracking down balls from behind the baseline, something which confirmed his pre-tournament comment his body was feeling “much better than expected.” Nadal also displayed sweet timing on several crosscourt backhands, cat-like anticipation at the net and was near-perfect with his overhead volley.
But the most significant takeaway from Nadal’s return may well have been the enjoyment he seemed to be getting from simply gracing the court once more. A smile was plastered on his face from the moment he strode onto Pat Rafter Arena, and it never disappeared. And it’s not difficult to understand why.
Nadal had been sidelined since injuring his left hip flexor during a second-round loss to American Mackenzie McDonald at January’s Australian Open. It was a devastating blow for Nadal, who had entered the Slam as the reigning champion and lasted just 36 hours before suffering yet another injury setback.
It wasn’t a completely new injury for Nadal, who had battled several hip-related concerns throughout his career. Nadal would undergo arthroscopic surgery to clean the fibrotic and degenerated areas of the tendon, as well as having it stitched to reinforce and strengthen the tissue. Nadal’s surgery also included repairing the labrum of his left hip, which had been injured in the previous season. Ultimately, his rehabilitation would force him to miss almost the entirety of 2023, the longest injury layoff of his glittering career.
“If I thought about retirement during that period of time, of course, yes. I went through a lot of things [that were] pretty bad,” Nadal confessed in Brisbane when asked if he pondered retirement during his extended layoff. “I did not miss the competition, because all this time my body was not ready to compete. What I missed was to be healthy; to wake up and not have pain.
“At some point I decided to keep going. Then I just began working day by day without thinking much and doing the things I have to do. It’s impossible to think about winning tournaments today. What’s really possible is to enjoy the comeback. I don’t expect much — one year without being on the court.”
Nadal’s encouraging doubles hit-out follows impressive practice sessions against long-time rival Andy Murray and world No. 8 Holger Rune, the latter heaping praise on Nadal for how quickly he’s been able to get himself back up to speed.
“The intensity he brings is incredible. I’ve been playing a very intense pre-season and a very intense end of season [but] that was probably the hardest practice I’ve had the last half year,” Rune said of Nadal. “We were hitting and he was hitting strong, then we started points and I thought he was moving very well. I thought he played unbelievable.”
Nadal’s focus will now shift to Tuesday’s singles where he will face 2020 US Open champion Dominic Thiem — who had to go through qualifiers in Brisbane — in the first round. Nadal owns a 9-6 head-to-head record against Thiem, though the pair haven’t played each other in over three years.
The Nadal comeback tour is unlikely to be for an extended period, with the 37-year-old having already declared the 2024 season is “probably going to be my last year on the professional tour.”
The likelihood is Nadal would play the French Open in May, a tournament he has won a record 14 times, back up at Wimbledon in July, and make the following month’s Olympic Games in Paris the final event of his illustrious career.
“I can’t have super long-term goals because I don’t see myself playing a super long time,” Nadal said. “I don’t know how things are going to keep going. I’m not a player who tries to predict what can happen. I need to accept the adversity and that it’s not going to be perfect, just come with the right spirit every day.”