ATP: Could Rafael Nadal return for the Australian Open?

Sidelined since January 2023, could the Mallorcan make his competitive return in Melbourne?

Rafael Nadal / Open d'Australie 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Romain Vinot

Missing tennis as much as the game is missing him, Rafael Nadal has been out of action since his January 18 loss to Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the 2023 Australian Open. Now though, the Spaniard has returned to training with the firm intention of playing again during the 2024 season. But while Australian Open director Craig Tiley has already confirmed his participation in the first Grand Slam of the season, Nadal’s team are being more cautious.

A long process

Rafael Nadal, who underwent hip surgery in June to treat a torn iliopsoas muscle sustained at the Australian Open, required a long period of recovery before being able to return to the courts. “My iliopsoas was very bad and the operation was a solution” he explained during an interview for Movistar + in September. “They told me that if I didn’t have the operation I wouldn’t recover even if I stopped for a long time. I took the decision, and the operation went well, but it’s a long time. I’ve been on holiday for five weeks only doing gym.”

Since that interview, the most successful player in the history of Roland Garros (14 titles) has indeed returned to training, providing renewed hope to his legions of fans by publishing a video of him hitting balls at his academy.

Perhaps anticipating the enthusiastic reactions of his most ardent supporters, he cautioned that his sole ambition was to be able to return to competition in good physical condition. “My hope is to play again, to be competitive again,” explained the Spaniard. “The hope is not returning and winning at Roland Garros again, or in Australia, let’s get that straight. I’m aware that at this point of my life, that is very far off. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’ve said it thousands of times, because things in sport change very quickly […] My hope is that in two months, mid-November, I’ll be able to say where I am. How I am physically, and above all how the injury is. We haven’t set a timeframe. First, I have a recovery process, I’m training 40 minutes, three days a week. This is my day-to-day schedule and I work a lot of hours in the gym and on recovery”.

Rafael Nadal - Open d'Australie 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Craig Tiley: “Rafa will be back”

Caught between enthusiasm and reality, the Mallorca native is giving himself ample time to evaluate and gauge his progress, then assess every last detail before making his comeback on an increasingly demanding circuit. However, such is the level of anticipation that some are already talking about his first steps on the hard courts of Melbourne, where the opening Grand Slam of the season will take place from January 14 to 28. Indeed, Craig Tiley, tournament director of the Australian Open, which will start for the first time on a Sunday and therefore run for 15 days, has just announced the presence of the two-time event winner (2009 and 2022) on The Today Show on Australia’s Channel 9. “We can reveal exclusively here that Rafa will be back,” Tiley said. “He's been off for most of the year, and in talking to him over the last few days he confirmed he will be back, which we're really excited about. That's awesome.”

Although the announcement was made with great fanfare, it was swiftly qualified by the Spaniard's team. Speaking from Shanghai, where the season’s penultimate Masters 1000 event is currently taking place, his agent Benito Perez-Barbadillo told the news agency Reuters that it was too early for such a decision: “I can confirm to you that Rafa is practising, as everyone saw on his last post on Instagram. But there is no date confirmed, scheduled or programmed yet for his comeback.”

A little later in the day, it was Nadal himself who tempered the information on his social networks. “I appreciate the vote of confidence from the Australian Open... I am practising every day and working hard to come back asap,” he simply tweeted.

Having slipped to 240th in the world after 20 years in the Top 100, Nadal can use his protected ranking to enter the main draws of any future tournaments he takes part in. For now, though, fans and tennis watchers will have to wait to find out the exact date when the 22-time Grand Slam winner returns to competitive tennis.

Champions in waiting

As well as the potential presence of the Manacor native, the tournament director used the media outing to talk about the expected participation of other players at the AO 2024. After withdrawing from this year’s edition at the last minute and enduring several injuries during the season, Nick Kyrgios could make his comeback in front of his home crowd. “We know Nick's been in training, wanting to return as well", added Tiley. So we expect to see him back.“

The same goes for some former champions and stars of the women's tour. Having dazzled this year on her Grand Slam comeback at the US Open, Caroline Wozniacki (AO winner in 2018) should be present Down Under. She could be joined by two other former world No.1s: Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka. The Japanese star, who gave birth to her daughter Shai in July, has confirmed her intention to play the first Grand Slam of the season, as has the German Kerber, who triumphed in Melbourne in 2016 and gave birth to daughter of her own, Liana, in February. “We'll welcome them - and their families - back to Melbourne with open arms and can't wait to see what their next chapter brings,“ Tiley concluded.

It just remains to be seen whether these major stars of the WTA and ATP tours will really be ready from the opening days of the 2024 season.