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Rafael Nadal returns in Brisbane

By Vanessa Taylor

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Rafael Nadal returned to the ATP tour at the Brisbane International.

After a year off for a hip injury sustained in the second round of the 2023 Australian Open, including surgery mid-year, the forced inactivity caused his ranking to drop to 672.

Obviously, Brisbane was happy to grant him a wild card to start his journey back at Pat Rafter Arena.

The first round in Brisbane offered the tantalising draw of Dominic Thiem v. Nadal.

Thiem, of course, was the 2020 US Open champion. Like Nadal, he has also been making his way back from injury, in his case, a severe wrist injury from mid-2021.

So far, Thiem has not regained his pre-injury form, and his ranking is now 94.

Without the benefit of a wild card, he had to play qualifying to access the Brisbane main draw.

He also had to avoid a highly poisonous eastern brown snake which had found its way onto the court during his first round qualifying match. It was easy to believe Thiem when he said it was “…something I’ll definitely never forget”.

The trespassing brown snake. Image: X: @mtewhatu

In the main draw, his match with Nadal saw the Spaniard take a 7-5 3-0 lead until great serving from Thiem got him on the scoreboard for 1-3.

His plan to attack Nadal’s backhand backfired, while he was visibly annoyed with his own backhand letting him down. Soon Thiem struggled with his serve and his footwork to be broken again for 1-5.

Nadal served his first double fault in the next game, though steadied to earn two match points. Somehow, he seized the first as Thiem stop-volleyed a ball that hit the top of the net and just dropped over. An alert Nadal rushed to the ball and flicked it back cross court, taking the set 6-1..

He was elated to get the win. To do so, he had won 90% of his first serve points as well as 21 points on return.

“Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me after probably one of the toughest years of my tennis career without a doubt,” he said.

Playing an Australian in Australia proved a problem for Nadal last year. He had chosen the United Cup as his return event after months out with a stomach injury. On behalf of Team Spain, he faced Alex De Minaur, in the second of his two singles matches, having lost the first to Brit Cam Norrie.

Against De Minaur, he had seemed a little sluggish and went down 5-7 in the third as the Australian raced around the court hitting winners.

Rafael Nadal playing Jason Kubler in Brisbane. Photo: Tennis Australia

This year in Brisbane, Nadal had no trouble beating Aussie Jason Kubler, who required treatment on his arm, 6-1 6-2. He then faced Sydney-sider Jordan Thompson, ranked 55.

Although Nadal actually won a point more than Thompson in the match, his opponent won the games tally, beating him 5-7 7-6(6) 6-3 in 205 minutes.

The first set was on serve 3-3 without a break point either way. After running Nadal back and forth across the baseline, Thompson drew an error to suddenly break and go up 4-3. Nadal produced a vintage passing shot to break straight back.

Nadal’s legs got going and his backhand was damaging. Thompson pushed a forehand long to allow Nadal to hold for 5-4, then the Australian had an easy hold to love for 5-5. It was then Nadal’s turn for an uncomplicated service game, followed by breaking Thompson to take the first set 7-5, after 70 minutes of play.

In the second set, Nadal began by holding to love. But at 1-1, he began running slightly awkwardly. His discomfort didn’t seem to linger and he achieved a match point at 5-4 40-30, and then two more in the tiebreak yet was unable to convert any of them. For two he made rusty errors off both wings and his opponent seized the opportunity to claim the set with a couple of outstanding points using all of the court.

At 1-4 in the third, a tiring Nadal left the court for medical attention and returned moving better, even as Thompson pummelled the ball every which way. His match point was the longest rally of the match and ended when Nadal hit a backhand over the baseline. The 35 point rally was embellished twice by the sustained sound of a train horn, which neither player allowed to distract them.

At his press conference, a pensive Nadal revealed his thoughts on the 205 minute match and his future. “After a year it’s difficult for the body to be playing tournaments at the highest level and when the things are becoming more difficult, you don’t know how your body is going to react…I need to accept everything how it comes…Honestly, I am not 100% sure of anything now. “

Jordan Thompson celebrating his victory over Rafael Nadal.
Photo: Tennis Australia

Thompson had, perhaps, never played better.

Unfortunately for him, he lost in the next round to No. 2 seed Grigor Dimtrov, who went on to win the title over top seed Holger Rune. It was Dimtrov’s first title in over six years.

After flying to Melbourne to prepare for the Australian Open, Nadal announced bad news for him and his many admirers.

During his match with Jordan Thompson, he had sustained another injury and would have to withdraw from the Australian Open.

The X post by Rafael Nadal made on 7 January. Source: X: @RafaelNadal

Title photo by BJ Warnick

Update

On 15 March, Rafael Nadal announced he has made “a last minute decision” to play the Barcelona Open.

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