Nadal and Murray use MWTC to gather intel on fitness and form for new season

Two of tennis' greatest champions competed in Abu Dhabi as they prepared for the next phase

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Immediately after winning the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) title on Saturday, Andrey Rublev laughed off suggestions that the "Big Four" might not be quite so big and intimidating anymore.

"Nah, this is a bit of an illusion because they know the real situation," the Russian world No 5 said with a smile. "They are still top, it doesn't matter if they are not playing tennis for one year and their rankings dropped, they know they are the top ones. So, I don't believe this."

The "top ones" to whom Rublev referred are of course four of the giants of men's tennis: multiple Grand Slam champions Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer, and three-time major winner and double Olympic gold medallist Andy Murray.

Given all their accomplishments, Rublev made a fair point, and in the case of Djokovic, the Serb is still literally the "top one" after a season in which he won three of four majors and ended the year at the pinnacle of the rankings for a record seventh season.

Yet, the landscape is markedly different for the other three, two of whom were competing alongside Rublev in Abu Dhabi. While Federer is still a long way off a return - the 40-year-old Swiss admitted in November he expects to be out until at least the middle of next year following a third knee operation in 18 months - there was a huge amount of intrigue surrounding Nadal and Murray at MWTC.

Nadal, 35, has consistently participated at the pre-season exhibition tournament as a means to fine-tune his game against top-level opponents ahead of a new season. With a record five titles in the capital, it has proved a winning formula.

But this year on his 11th appearance, he arrived with "no big expectations" having not played a match since August due to a serious foot injury. Indeed, the foot was so bad, the Spaniard revealed in Abu Dhabi that he played his final tournament of the season, at the Washington Open, in "very bad condition ... it was a disaster". This year, it wasn't so much a case of assessing his game, but assessing his overall health.

Unsurprisingly and understandably, Nadal was rusty on his return to competition, enduring two defeats from his two matches, but the aura that surrounds him and the fire that burns within him remain as powerful as ever.

The 13-time French Open champion garnered the lion's share of the support inside a near-capacity International Tennis Centre stadium on both Friday and Saturday, and despite evidently lacking in match sharpness, he played with his trademark intensity. Even without a match in half a year, Nadal still took Canadian world No 14 Denis Shapovalov to three sets in the third-place playoff.

The question now is just how far Nadal is from a return to the tour. He made it clear that his aim is to make his way Down Under and to compete at the Australian Open next month, but that he "can't guarantee 100 per cent ... I will take it day by day."

While uncertainty surrounds his fitness, there can never be any doubting his drive and commitment.

"I am still playing after the career I've had because I still believe I will be competitive enough to give myself chances for the things I have competed for the last 15 years," Nadal said. "I am not playing for money or for fun - I am playing to keep achieving goals and to enjoy the process to try and achieve my goals. If I don't achieve that’s fine, but the motivation and the passion is still there."

After beating Nadal in Friday's semi-final, Murray empathised with his long-time rival. "I know how that feels," the 34-year-old Briton said when asked for his thoughts on the Spaniard's road to recovery.

Murray does indeed know better than most following the hip injury that almost ended his career at the start of 2019. It has been a long, grinding, often frustrating journey for the former world No 1, who is still ranked outside the top 100, but there was reason for optimism at the end of last season and again at MWTC.

Having entered the off-season after a run of consecutive tournaments and a pair of wins over top-10 opponents, Murray returned to the court in Abu Dhabi to register victories against world No 25 Dan Evans and Nadal, before a closely-fought defeat to Rublev in the final.

"It was a good week for me," Murray said. "I played three matches against completely different styles so that was positive. It was good to see where my body’s at, playing at that sort of intensity.

"I learned quite a lot across the three matches. Certainly some things improved as the week went on, and there are things to work on, but it was good."

Updated: December 19, 2021, 3:38 PM