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Searching for Rafael Nadal in 2024

Rafael Nadal pulled out of the Australian Open with an injury after indicating that 2024 may be his final year as a pro tennis player

Rafael Nadal in action at the Australian Open 2023.
Rafael Nadal in action at the Australian Open 2023. (AFP)

It was the second match of Rafael Nadal’s comeback season at the Brisbane International, last Wednesday, against 63rd-ranked Jason Kubler. Nadal was leading 3-0, up a break point. He had beaten former US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the opening round—his first match in nearly a year since the 2023 Australian Open.

After a short rally, Kubler drew Nadal to the net and lobbed, hoping that a 37-year-old returning from a year’s post-surgery break would watch the ball sail over his head. What followed, however, was one of the sport’s more difficult shots to play—a quick turnaround, backhanded overhead smash into the open court, with Nadal’s back turned towards his opponent. 

Also Read How Rafael Nadal defended his kingdom at French Open 2022

“Do not try this at home, these are trained professionals,” the commentator noted wryly, as the crowd roared, in approval, amazement and definitely relief. His fans, sceptical about what version of Nadal they would see in 2024, now optimistic that the famed skills, anticipation, court craft and fighting spirit was intact, even if the speed and intensity was still building up.

Nadal’s return to the sport, albeit on a deadline, has given the men’s game in 2024 an added edge. After Novak Djokovic cornered three of last year’s Grand Slams and Carlos Alcaraz picked up one, nostalgic tennis fans were looking forward to a worthy challenger for the barely-stoppable Serbian (Djokovic leads Nadal 30-29 in head-to-head clashes). Nadal had announced in 2023 that this could be his final year in professional sport, his battered and bruised body unable to cope with the demands of another injury or recovery.

Also Read Roger Federer's elegant exit

But his return in Brisbane led to another niggle during the quarterfinals, which has now ruled him out of the Australian Open, set to begin 14 January. “… I have micro tear on a muscle, not in the same part where I had the injury and that’s good news. Right now I am not ready to compete at the maximum level of exigence in 5 sets matches,” he posted on his Twitter/X handle on Monday. “I have worked very hard during the year for this comeback and as I always mentioned my goal is to be at my best level in 3 months....”

Nadal underwent hip surgery last summer, not playing in any tournament in 2023 after the Australian Open. His recovery was slow, amid speculations of whether he would ever return, before he announced a comeback for possibly one last time. 

But if there are expectations from Nadal in 2024, they need to be tempered. With every little sign of re-emerging brilliance has been a re-emerging sign of ageing fragility. He lost in the quarterfinal in Brisbane, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-3 in a close, three-hour and 25-minute battle with 43-ranked Jordan Thomson, after dropping three match points. Here too, there was a glimpse of the Nadal everyone hopes to see more of. On his serve, a low drop shot to the net from Thomson had Nadal scrambling to the net, but he oh-so-effortlessly picked the ball up and sent it low, across court, which had Jordan smiling ruefully. 

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“Come on Rafa, give us a smile,” goaded the commentator as Nadal sat down during the changeover.

Nadal’s glittering career would perhaps have been even more trophy-filled had his body not betrayed him so often, so brutally. He has missed 14 Grand Slam events from the time he played his first in 2003—in comparison, Djokovic played every Grand Slam from 2005 to the 2017 US Open, which he missed with an elbow injury. The Spaniard has missed at least one tournament every year of his career with a litany of complaints, including knee and foot injuries, hamstring, wrist tendon tear and an abdominal muscle strain among others. 

He couldn’t play the 2021 Wimbledon, US Open, and Tokyo Olympics with a foot problem. He had a resurgent 2022 that seemed like a second wind to a career winding down, a welcome sight in a post-Roger Federer world. A second Australian Open title preceded a 14th French Open title—played with the help of anaesthesia on his left foot to ease pain—and a semi-final at Wimbledon where he pulled out with a torn abdominal muscle. Almost all of 2023 was spent in recuperation, before this, the swansong year.

Also Read Australian Open 2023: A comeback, a farewell and a coronation

In the past, he had bounced back like a tennis ball from every injury, playing remarkably at the same level, as if unaffected by the break. For example, he started at Wimbledon in 2022 without playing a competitive match on grass since 2019 and still made it to the semis. “It’s a simple thing: I like what I do,” Nadal said last week. “I like playing tennis. I know it’s not forever. ... I like to fight for the things that I have been fighting for almost half of my life or even more.”

What’s most anticipated this year is for the greatest clay-court player to fight for a 15th French Open title this summer. For, Roland Garros—where he has a 112-3 win-loss record—with his unbeatable aura and a synonymity with its red clay, would be the ideal sign off. As Daniil Medvedev once said, “Even if he wouldn’t be 100% physically, but decided to play, he’d be a favourite.”

John McEnroe, while once watching a 16-year-old Nadal retrieve every ball in a match, said, “Is he going to play every point like that?”—a statement made famous later in a Nike commercial. In 2024, for one last time, his fans hope that he plays every point like that.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

Also Read Why clay courts remain the final frontier for the world's top tennis players

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