Rafael Nadal is to make his comeback to action in Brisbane in January, a landmark sporting moment that even a fellow sporting legend believes should be something to treasure while we can.
Tiger Woods, who’s making his own golfing comeback in the Bahamas, was effusive about the prospect of the return of the Spanish tennis legend when asked about it this week even before Nadal announced the Brisbane International would be his first competition for almost a year.
“I just think that we should all enjoy watching Rafa compete,” Woods had said of his friend, sounding like every tennis fan out there.
“To watch him play, and see what he’s meant to the game and what he’s meant to all of us, just to see the passion and how he plays and why he plays.
“What Rafa’s done is extraordinary. I mean, he won the Australian Open on a broken foot. The guy is beyond tough and beyond competitive, and he knows that Father Time is here.
“Every athlete faces it. And some sports, it happens faster than others. Unfortunately, just like every sport, you can get aged out. And I don’t want to see him go. I never want to see Roger Federer go either – but that’s just what happens.”
But like Woods, who defied all logic by winning the 2019 Masters at 43 after years of back woes, the big question is whether Nadal can return to the Australian Open next year and pull off, even by his never-say-die standards, his most remarkable grand slam triumph yet in what he says will be his final year of competition.
His victory in 2022 in Melbourne was amazing enough off the back of a COVID setback and a six-month lay-off following surgery on a chronic foot injury that made him fear for his career.
But this looks even more of a long shot. At 37, he hasn’t played since last year’s Australian Open, where his hip problems contributed painfully to his second-round exit at the hands of Mackenzie McDonald.
This time, the comeback, even for Tiger’s “beyond tough” guy pal, will be monumentally difficult, especially as Nadal will go into Brisbane on the back of six defeats in his last seven matches.
Can he now ever really even approach being the indestructible Rafa of old?
Even back in his pomp back in 2017, he never got beyond the quarter-finals of the Brisbane International.
This time, another formidable international field will hope to ambush the great man in the December 31 to January 7 event at the Queensland Tennis Centre, headed by world No.8 Holger Rune, US hot-shot Ben Shelton, former world No.1 Andy Murray and the evergreen Grigor Dimitrov.
“Hello everyone. After a year away from competition it’s time to come back,” Nadal said in a video message on X on Friday.
“I will be in Brisbane the first week of January. I’ll see you there.”
The appearance could be the start of what will effectively be a grand farewell tour for the 22-time grand slam singles winner, whose ranking has plummeted to 663 after his 18-year stay in the top 10 ended in March..
Nadal says he plans to play the French Open and represent his country at the Paris Olympics next year before retiring at the end of his 23rd season on tour.
It’s been a long, hard fight for the battle-scarred, veteran champion to get back to action after he had initially been expected just to miss eight weeks of action after Melbourne, but ended up undergoing surgery on the hip in June.
Nadal missed the French Open, the tournament he’s won a record 14 times, and had announced at the time: “You never know how things will turn out, but my intention is that next year will be my last year.”
Last month, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley had confirmed Nadal, twice a winner of the event, would be back at Melbourne for the season’s first grand slam.
But clearly, the Brisbane event that runs between December 31 and January 7 will be the key test of whether Nadal is ready to shoot for a hat-trick of Open titles at Melbourne Park in the January 14 to 28 slam.
It will also put even more of a spotlight on the Brisbane International tune-up, which is returning after a three-year absence brought on initially by the COVID pandemic.
The event had already enjoyed a coup by being able to announce that former world No.1 Naomi Osaka was to make her comeback there following the birth of her first child in July.