Rafael Nadal returns to court but admits 'high percentage' 2024 will be final season

Spaniard plays first match in almost one year following long-term hip injury

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The broad smile across Rafael Nadal's face said it all. After almost a year on the sidelines with a hip injury, the Spaniard made his return to competitive tennis in a doubles match alongside compatriot Marc Lopez, and although the pair lost in Brisbane, the sight of Nadal back in action was a victory in itself.

A ferocious competitor and one of the sport's great champions, being happy in defeat is not generally part of Nadal's makeup. But these are not ordinary times in the incomparable career of the 22-time Grand Slam winner.

Despite his truckload of trophies, injuries have been ever-present for Nadal, and he admitted the many fitness issues over the years may have finally caught up with him.

“The problem about saying that it’s going to be my last season is I can’t predict what’s going on 100 per cent in the future. That’s why I say probably,” Nadal said during a press conference on Sunday shortly before his doubles match at the Brisbane International.

“It’s obvious it’s a high percentage that this is going to be my last time playing here in Australia. But if I am here next year, don’t tell me, ‘You said (this is) going to be your last season’, because I didn’t say it,” he added with a smile.

Nadal's first true test of his comeback will come on Tuesday when he competes in a singles tournament for the first time since January's second-round defeat at the Australian Open. Adding to the anticipation, the 37-year-old will take on in the first round fellow Grand Slam champion Dominic Thiem, who progressed through qualifying and who also knows plenty about long-term injury having battled back from wrist issues.

Nadal starts the new season ranked No 672 – unfamiliar territory for a player who spent a record 912 weeks, dating back to April 2005, inside the top 10. As such, he is keeping expectations low.

“I can’t predict how [I’m] going to be in the next six months,” said Nadal. “I can’t predict if my body will allow me to enjoy tennis as much as I enjoyed the past 20 years. I don’t know if my body will allow me to be competitive.

"I mean, not in a way to win the most important events, but [in] the way that makes me happy, feel myself competitive to go on court and to feel that I can compete against anyone.”

If expectations are decidedly modest around Nadal, the exact opposite is the case for his great rival Novak Djokovic, who also kickstarted his season on Sunday with a routine win in the United Cup team event.

Arriving in Australia following a season in which he won three of four major titles and the season-ending ATP Finals, Djokovic is once again the man to beat down under as he takes aim at a record-extending 11th Australian Open title.

And the 36-year-old world No 1 began his campaign with Serbia with a routine 6-3, 6-2 win over China's Zhang Zhizhen.

“It’s great to be back in Perth,” said Djokovic. “New Year’s is in a few hours so I really appreciate you coming to hopefully celebrate New Year’s Eve with us here on the court. It’s been 10 years since I’ve been in Perth, and this arena is definitely one of the nicest, from inside and outside, that I’ve played in.

“Obviously Australia has been my happy place. The place where I made the most Slam wins in Melbourne, and I love coming back. I missed playing in Perth as well.”

Updated: December 31, 2023, 12:45 PM