Nadal 'highly motivated' to start season strongly as Djokovic makes return to Australia

On the WTA Tour, world No 1 Swiatek says she will begin the year with a clean slate after a stunning 2022

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Rafael Nadal said he is "highly motivated" to start the new tennis season strongly as the 22-time Grand Slam champion prepares to defend his Australian Open title amid a renewed challenge from the returning Novak Djokovic.

The 36-year-old Spaniard is beginning his new season at the United Cup, a new mixed-teams event starting on Thursday in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. It will provide a warm-up for his defence of the Australian Open title next month at Melbourne Park, where he defeated Russian Daniil Medvedev to win in an epic five-set battle.

That victory, Nadal's second at Melbourne Park, came with long-time rival Djokovic absent from the tournament after he was deported from Australia, his medical exemption for not being vaccinated against Covid-19 ultimately deemed insufficient by the government.

As the defending and record nine-time Australian Open champion, Djokovic was the favourite to win the title earlier this year and will again be the man to beat next month. In November, his ban from the country was overturned and the government issued the Serb a visa following Australia's change in Covid entry requirements whereby visitors no longer need to provide proof of vaccination.

Djokovic arrived back in Australia on Tuesday and was back on the practice court on Wednesday ahead of his debut at the Adelaide International, starting Sunday. Nadal, who has a record men's 22 Grand Slam titles to Djokovic's 21, said he was happy to see his superstar rival back.

"Novak is here, good for tennis, good for probably the fans," the world No 2 said in Sydney on Wednesday. "Let's see, no? Best players on court always win."

Nadal backed up his Australian Open win this year with a 14th French Open but struggled with injury after withdrawing from the Wimbledon semi-final with an abdominal tear in July. It was the latest injury setback in a career unfortunately filled with fitness problems, but Nadal is focused only on starting this year as well as possible and on recovering his match fitness.

"The highest motivation is to try to start well. It's always important to start well for me, for the confidence," he said. "The last few months haven't been easy for me. Main thing for me now is recover the positive feelings on court, being competitive. I hope to. I am ready to make that happen, but let's see."

Considering his many injury problems and the fact he recently became a father for the first time, there has been speculation that Nadal is nearing retirement. However, when asked if this could be his final trip to Australia, Nadal said: "As a professional, you never know, hopefully not.

"I mean, when you are at the age of 36, you never know when it's going to be the last one. It's obvious, but I don't like to talk about that because I am not in that mood now.

"I'm just focused on trying to play at the highest level possible and give myself possibilities to keep being competitive, to fight for anything. That's my goal now. I'm not thinking about it being my last time here. I am happy doing what I am doing. I'm looking forward to keep doing this."

Swiatek 'focused on the future'

On the WTA Tour, world No 1 Iga Swiatek said she is keeping her astonishing 2022 season firmly in the past and is focused on cementing her place at the top of the women's game.

The 21-year-old Pole won eight singles titles, including Roland Garros and the US Open, in a stellar year that saw her take a commanding position at the top of the rankings. Swiatek inherited the No 1 spot with the shock retirement of Ashleigh Barty in March, but has since made it her own.

Iga Swiatek practices in Brisbane ahead of the 2023 United Cup. EPA

"I'm going to try to kind of cut off everything that happened last year and just focus on the future, because I feel like I can take a lot of experience from these tournaments last year," Swiatek, who is also competing in the United Cup, said in Brisbane.

"I don't want to hold on to that too much, because I want to go forward and kind of focus on my next goals."

Swiatek admitted she had mixed emotions when she became No 1 after Barty's retirement, saying: "At first I felt like I wasn't sure if this is kind of my place to be. Ash, she seemed like a huge role model for everybody in terms of her behaviour on court but also off court so I felt like she really set the bar pretty high.

"I need to show it to people but also show it to myself that I'm in the right place.

"I'm super proud of myself," she added. "I feel a huge satisfaction, because I have been working my whole life to get to this point. I didn't really think it's possible for me.

"Even right now I feel like there is a lot I can change and improve."

Updated: December 28, 2022, 10:20 AM