SYDNEY: More than two decades after bursting on the scene, the sun is setting on Rafael Nadal’s storied career with the Spanish gladiator hoping his creaking body can hold up long enough to see out the season.
The 37-year-old returns to the courts in Brisbane this week, almost a year since he last played professionally before an injury curse that has long plagued him returned with a vengeance.
It has been a recurring theme of a record-breaking career which has brought 22 Grand Slam titles and global respect, a painful by-product of his all-action, brutal-hitting style that has led to struggles with serious knee, wrist and foot problems.
His most recent setback, at the 2023 Australian Open, resulted in two rounds of hip surgery and fears that he would never grace the courts again.
But Nadal didn’t want it to end like that, and he has battled back for what he admits is likely his last season, to say goodbye to the fans, “enjoy myself again,” but also be competitive.
“I don’t know at what level (I can play at), I don’t know what to expect, I have no idea, but I don’t care right now,” Nadal said this month, looking ahead to 2024.
“I’m just happy to be back and with great excitement to make the effort that is necessary to have fun, and I believe that I will be competitive.”
His coach Carlos Moya gave an insight into how hard it had been to get to this point, admitting there were times when he thought Nadal’s career was over.
“When you go through a process like this operation … at the end of the day, going under the knife is really a last resort to try and make a comeback and retire on court,” Moya told the ATP Tour website last week.
“Aware of those risks, he gave it a go because it was the only option for him if he wanted to come back.
“It has not been a bed of roses, far from it. It’s been a winding, tortuous road, with many curves.”
The fact that Nadal is still driven to hit balls is indicative of a player who, while quiet and modest off court, has been relentless in his pursuit of tennis glory.
That drive, and all the on-court idiosyncrasies he is famous for, has garnered 92 titles since turning professional in 2001, including 22 Slams.
He dominated the French Open, where he won 14 of his majors, his first arriving just days after his 19th birthday in 2005, his last in 2022 making him the event’s oldest champion.
On the famous crushed brick of Roland Garros, he has lost just three times in 115 matches.
He is a four-time champion at the US Open, won Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010, and is a two-time winner at the Australian Open — with 13 years spanning his first triumph at Melbourne Park in 2009 and his second in 2022.
Whether Nadal — whose athleticism, power, mental strength and brilliant forehand made him one of the greatest ever — makes it through 2024 will depend on how he manages himself.
But Moya admitted it was hard to rein in his natural competitiveness.
“As much as we try to get that into his head and make him see it, when he steps on a tennis court, he’s a competitive animal,” he said.
“A large part of my work and that of the team has been to stop him. Stop him in terms of the load of training, stop him in terms of hours of work, intensity.”
In preparation for the Brisbane International and the Australian Open, Nadal spent time at his academy in Kuwait in search of temperatures and conditions similar to those he will encounter in Australia.
He trained with fast-rising French teen Arthur Fils and Moya said it went “much better than he could have hoped.”
“Rafa went there thinking that he wouldn’t be competitive, that he wouldn’t be good enough, and he’s left convinced that it might be possible.”