Rafael Nadal and Emma Raducanu show encouraging signs on comeback trails

Both players are returning from long-term injury absences and produced good performances on Thursday, albeit with contrasting results

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Rafael Nadal and Emma Raducanu might be at opposite ends of their respective tennis careers but parallels can be drawn between their early years.

Both are supremely talented players who shot to superstardom by winning a Grand Slam as a youngster. Both fell victim to the misfortune of injury early in their careers. And both are now making their way back from extended injury breaks under a glaring spotlight.

For Raducanu, her shining moment famously came at the 2021 US Open, where, at the age of 18, she became the first qualifier to win a major title – achieved without dropping a set. Blue-chip sponsors clamoured to be associated with sport's newest sensation, and overnight Raducanu became one of the most marketable athletes on the planet.

But the next two years on the court were not kind to Raducanu. Struggling under the weight of expectation and dealing with a litany of injury issues, the Briton slid back down the rankings and called time on her 2023 season at the end of April after undergoing surgery on her ankle and both wrists.

Of all professional tennis players, few can empathise with Raducanu's setbacks more than Nadal. He may have amassed 22 Grand Slam titles and set a host of unbreakable records, but his has been a career significantly disrupted by injury. The most recent, a hip injury, was deemed severe enough to require surgery that kept the Spaniard on the sidelines for close to a full year.

Returning from such lengthy absences is a gradual process. Players need time not only to get their fitness up to speed, but to rediscover their touch and feel on the court, their game management, and how to deal with pressure moments and swings in momentum.

In that regard, both Raducanu and Nadal are showing encouraging signs at the start of the new season, albeit with contrasting results on Thursday.

In Auckland, Raducanu produced one of her best performances against a top player since her US Open triumph, going down in three sets to world No 25 Elina Svitolina. The world No 301 went toe-to-toe with her illustrious opponent for two long sets before tiring in the third to lose 6-7, 7-6, 6-1.

Raducanu was the far better player in the early exchanges and deserved her 5-1 lead in the first set, with Svitolina unable to handle the 21-year-old's aggression and impressive ball striking. Even after letting slip her lead by losing five straight games, Raducanu showed grit under pressure to force, and then win, the tiebreak.

An even second set went the way of Svitolina in another tiebreak and as Raducanu fatigued, the Ukrainian ultimately ran away with the decider.

But this was a good performance from Raducanu, who should take plenty of confidence from her two matches in New Zealand heading into the Australian Open, where she has gained last-minute automatic entry under her protected ranking of 103.

Later in the day and across the Tasman Sea in Brisbane, Nadal continued his own comeback with a classy display, following up his first-round win over former US Open champion Dominic Thiem with a lopsided 6-1, 6-2 victory against Australian wildcard Jason Kubler.

Granted, Nadal did not face quite the same calibre of challenge as Raducanu on Thursday, but this was still the Spaniard close to his ruthless best, refusing to allow Kubler to settle and completely controlling the match from start to finish from the baseline.

Nadal was not quite as dominant on serve as he was against Thiem and needed to save four break points throughout the match, although his return game was locked in; he won 43 per cent of Kubler's first serve points and a whopping 82 per cent on his second serve.

"I started the match playing very well, with a very good determination," the former world No 1 said on court. "I came on court trying to be aggressive with my shots from the baseline and it worked very well. It was a very positive match.

"To have the chance to play again tomorrow means a lot to me. Two victories after a long time away from the professional tour is something that makes me feel good."

Next up in Nadal's comeback mission is another Australian, Jordan Thompson, in the quarter-finals on Friday. The 37-year-old has beaten Thompson on two previous occasions, both in straight sets, and will be heavily favoured to complete the hat-trick.

Nadal, who admitted 2024 could be his final season, has been keen to stress the importance of keeping expectations low. But if he maintains this level, then it will be tough to convince anyone that he won't be a contender at the Australian Open.

Updated: January 04, 2024, 12:58 PM