Rafael Nadal impresses in 'emotional' comeback match in Brisbane

Spaniard outclasses Dominic Thiem in first round of Brisbane International - his first match in almost a year

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It took all of one point to gauge Rafael Nadal's level on his long-awaited comeback to tournament tennis.

Competing in his first singles match on Tuesday after almost a year out with a hip injury, Nadal dispatched a trademark inside-out forehand winner with just the third swing of his racquet. Any doubts about how sharp the Spaniard might be were answered seven seconds into his first-round match at the Brisbane International.

Nadal has been understandably keen to keep expectations low, insisting he is not thinking about competing for majors just yet and admitting 2024 could well be his final season on tour. Yet, his 7-5, 6-1 cruise past Dominic Thiem would have done little to ease those expectations, at least externally.

Granted, the Thiem Nadal faced on Tuesday is far from the player who won the 2020 US Open and climbed as high as third in the world rankings; the Austrian, like Nadal, is making his own gradual comeback, from long-term wrist injuries.

Still, the first set was of good quality. Both players impressed on serve and struck the ball well, while Nadal's footwork and movement around the court belied his lengthy absence. There was also nothing wrong with his game management nor his usual brooding intensity; at the first sign of wilt from Thiem's serve, Nadal applied the pressure and forced a break at the fourth attempt to seal the first set.

From there, Nadal ran away with it. As Thiem's first-serve percentage dropped from 68 to 50 per cent in the second set, Nadal seized control, breaking his opponent in the second and sixth games to ease to victory.

Perhaps most pleasing, Nadal served superbly throughout, winning 90 per cent of points on his first serve, which he was accurate with almost 70 per cent of the time. Put simply, Nadal looked sharp and the early signs of this latest injury comeback look promising.

“Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me after probably one of the toughest years of my tennis career,” Nadal, 37, said.

“I had the chance to come back after a year and play in front of an amazing crowd and play at a very positive level on the first day, [It] is something that makes us feel proud – my team and family who have been there every day in the last year.”

The sample size may be small – 89 minutes to be exact – but this win over Thiem at least showed there is little rust to Nadal's tools. For a player who trains as intensely as he does, that is probably of no surprise.

Where Nadal's lack of match time and his overall fitness will be more severely tested is when tournaments, and indeed the season as a whole, progress. Winning one match impressively in an hour and a half is one thing, being able to do that on successive days throughout an entire week and ensuring sufficient recovery is quite another.

Then there are the best-of-five Grand Slams, of which the first, the Australian Open, is less than two weeks away. It was at Melbourne Park last January where Nadal's season came to a premature end in the second round. Now, Nadal looks a much happier and healthier player.

Talk of his Grand Slam chances and a 23rd major title can wait, though. For now, Nadal can reflect on a highly encouraging first outing and a 1,069th tour-level victory which moves him to fourth on the all-time list.

“As you can imagine, today it wasn't a statistic I was aware of,” said Nadal, who made his initial return to competition in a doubles match on Sunday, and will face Australian Jason Kubler in the second round.

“I had enough work just to be focused and come back on court and remember how to play in a competitive match. There were nerves and doubts before the match. But things went well and I'm excited to be back.”

Updated: January 02, 2024, 1:33 PM