Brisbane: Rafael Nadal, a triumphant comeback

The Majorcan got 2024 off to a superb start by clinching a convincing win against Dominic Thiem.

Rafael Nadal / Brisbane 2024©Âjono Searle / EPA / MAXPPP
 - Romain Vinot

On Tuesday, the eyes of all tennis fans were riveted on the ATP 250 tournament in Brisbane. Absent from the courts for the last 349 days, ever since his defeat in the second round of the 2023 Australian Open, Rafael Nadal made his eagerly-anticipated return to competition in Queensland. As accurate, speedy and powerful as ever, the man with 22 Grand Slam titles to his name put in an impressive performance on court.

A slick victory

In these first few days of January, it is customary to make resolutions for the year ahead and pass on good wishes to loved ones. Rafael Nadal's fans could not have hoped for a better comeback for their favourite champion. Facing Dominic Thiem in a duel that would not have looked out of place at Roland-Garros, the current World No.672 not only overtook Ivan Lendl by winning the 1,069th victory of his career, but he did it in style (7-5 6-1 in 1 hour 29 minutes).

This tantalising and hotly-anticipated match was nevertheless shrouded with uncertainty regarding the Spaniard’s physical fitness and whether his tennis skills were still up to scratch. Though his recent training sessions had proved that he was back on form, the questions surrounding his ability to win an official match seemed legitimate. However, on the day after he lost in the doubles alongside Marc Lopez, Nadal quashed any of these doubts.

Against an opponent who he had not played since the group stages of the 2020 ATP Finals, Carlos Moya’s protégé quickly got the match under control. With his devastating serve (90% of points won on his first serve, 80% on his second), he patiently waited until the end of the first set before dealing the decisive blow. At 6-5 in his favour, he moved in on his opponent’s serve to secure four break points, pocketing the set soon afterwards. A shoddy forehand error by the Austrian enabled Nadal to take the lead, cheered on by the applause of his fans and, indeed, the whole stadium.

The end of this first set saw Nadal relax a little, whereas Thiem started to wobble. The man with 92 titles to his name took full advantage of the chink in his opponent’s psychological armour to run away with the second set. After breaking from the outset with a magnificent passing shot, he was able to dig deep when down 15-30 for the first time in the match, with the scoreboard at 3-1. He sealed Thiem’s fate by stealing his service game for the third time, unflinchingly driving the match home to clinch a smooth and convincing victory that boosted optimism about the Majorcan’s future.

A reassuring standard of play

In addition to the final score and his ability to seize opportunities at just the right moment, what really stood out in this first outing back on the tour was Nadal’s superb standard of play. Unlike in his previous comebacks, he showed outstanding accuracy in both his shots and his footwork. Hitting aggressively from the outset, he used his whippy forehand to stun and overwhelm his opponent. Though he was not often brought to the net, his speed and explosivity were always on cue.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he experienced no physical issues and has lost none of his warrior-like spirit. From his regular fist pumps to his ear-to-ear grin in the post-match interview, Rafa seems to be driven by an irrepressible desire to play and enjoy a full year on the courts. “Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me, after probably one of the toughest years of my tennis career, without a doubt,” Nadal said. “I had the chance to come back after a year and play in front of an amazing crowd and play, I think, at a very positive level […] On the first day, it is something that makes us feel proud. Myself, all the team and family that have been there every single day during the past year.”

Overall, this was a successful comeback – almost as if he had never been away – which the Spaniard will now try to emulate against Jason Kubler in the next round. It is an opportunity to prove to any doubters that he is still capable of securing consecutive wins and slotting back into the famous tournament routine that he missed so much.

Rafael Nadal / Brisbane 2024©Âjono Searle / EPA / MAXPPP