Tennis icon Rafael Nadal doesn't appear to have spent nearly a year away from the game when he defeated Dominic Thiem 7-5, 6-1 at the Brisbane International on Tuesday in Australia.
Nadal (37 years old) has not appeared in an elite singles match since suffering a thigh injury at the Australian Open last January, but it appears that his movement was not hindered. He lost only six points on his serve and won eight of the last nine games of the match.
Nadal said: “The first set was equal, as both of us served well and we more or less won the serve.” “I was able to get that break at 6-5, and that makes the difference. Honestly, I know Dominic has had a tough time with injuries as well, so I'm happy to see him on the field and I wish him the best for the season.
Nadal pointed out that it was the longest period of his career without participating in a professional tournament. This is his first victory since his victory over Jack Draper in his opening round match at the Australian Open last year.
Nadal said: “Today is, frankly, an emotional and important day for me after one of the most difficult years in my tennis career, without a doubt.” “I had the opportunity to come back a year later and play in front of an amazing crowd and play, I think, at a very positive level.
“On day one, this is something that makes us proud. Me and all the team and family members who have been there every day for the past year.
This marked Nadal's 1,069th tour-level victory, moving past Ivan Lendl into fourth place on the men's all-time leaderboard behind Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
The Spaniard, ranked No. 672 and a wild-card player in the tournament, will face wild-card Jason Kuebler at home next. The 30-year-old Australian was level with Aslan Karatsev 6-4, 6-7(4) on Tuesday when the No. 8 seed withdrew with a knee injury.
Nadal delivers an outstanding performance in the singles comeback
Even for a 22-time Grand Slam champion, Nadal's level in his opening match was extremely low.
There are a lot of people on Nadal's team, from coaches to trainers, who were happy just to see him finish the match straight after everything he's been through.
For the final eight months of the 2022 season and into the first weeks of last year, that wasn't a guarantee. One injury led to another. Cracked rib. Chronic pain in his foot returns. Abdominal rupture. Knee problem. Then came the hip disaster in the second round of the Australian Open that for a long time looked like it might spell the end of her career.
Just weeks ago, Nadal stared into the camera and said he had no idea what would happen when he returned to the court.
“I expect myself not to expect anything. That's the truth.” “I think I'm in a different moment, in a different situation and in unexplored territory.”
Then on Tuesday night in Brisbane, a lot looked familiar, especially since his opponent was Thiem, the 2020 US Open champion who once looked poised to join Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the top of the sport. Thiem has become a shadow of his former self, but Nadal has once again shown those powerful strokes, those forehands, those trademark strategic attacks up the court to finish off points, and the constant desire to chase down balls that so many others abandon.
Given Nadal's history, it wouldn't take much to raise the hopes of the Spaniard's countless fans that an old Nadal is just around the corner. Maybe it is. Maybe that will be 2022 again, when Nadal returns from season-ending injuries to win the title.
Maybe that's a lot to ask. Inaugural season, an opening round win in two sets over a lackluster former champion is one thing. Five sets against the Djokovic, Carlos Carrazes and Jannik Sinner of the world is something else entirely.
More days that end upright. More games and tournaments during what will likely be a farewell season. That should be considered victory enough.
“The first thing, and I repeat, is to stay healthy,” Nadal said in a post-match press conference. “If I can stay healthy, I'm able to practice at the level I need to practice. If I'm able to play matches feeling ready to play a match, then the chances of competing in a not too long period of time are much higher.
Nadal continued: “If you go to the court the day after tomorrow and have problems, the process will be much more difficult.” — Matthew Futterman, senior tennis writer
(Photo: Bradley Canaris/Getty Images)
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