Rafael Nadal has laid down an Australian Open marker with a stylish and successful return to tennis after almost a year out of the game with a career-threatening hip injury.
Nadal needed just two high-quality sets and 88 minutes in a 7-5 6-1 victory over four-times grand slam finalist and 2020 US Open champion Dominic Thiem to dispel any concerns, at age 37, he may be a spent force.
The living legend showed age and a world ranking of 692 were merely numbers in wowing a capacity centre-court crowd to surge into the Brisbane International second round on Tuesday night.
“Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me,” he said.
“After probably one of the toughest years of my tennis career without a doubt, I have the chance to come back after a year and play in front of an amazing crowd.
“And play at the very positive level on the first day (of my comeback) is something that probably make us feel proud now to myself, to all the family that have been there every single day during the last year.”
Nadal’s wife Maria Francisca, father Sebastian and coach, former world No.1 Carlos Moya, were among the superstar’s extended entourage courtside for what the former world No.1 admits may be his last competitive trip to Australia.
“The support is super important, especially when in the low moments,” Nadal said.
“So to have the chance to receive thousands of messages during all this year and having great people next to me every single day makes the difference without a doubt.
“I missed being healthy. I missed, of course, feeling myself competitive and playing in front of full crowds like this.”
Fans undoubtedly missed Nadal, too, and he wasted no time giving those courtside a rare first-round treat.
Twice French Open final combatants, Nadal and Thiem – the Austrian himself on the comeback from a debilitating wrist injury – produced some incredible shot-making to light up Pat Rafter Arena after two gloomy days of rain.
Playing for the first time since suffering his hip injury in a shattering second-round Australian Open loss, as defending champion, to Mackenzie McDonald last January, Nadal came out firing from the get-go.
He bludgeoned a signature forehand winner in the first rally of the match and dropped just three points on serve while taking the opening set with a mix of power and deft touch at the net.
After gaining the first break in the 12th game, the great Spaniard rolled through the second set in rapid fashion to show he remains very much a grand slam heavyweight to be reckoned with ahead of the season’s first major starting in Melbourne in 12 days.
His breathtaking comeback will raise hopes of the mighty Majorcan renewing his compelling rivalry with 10-times Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic.
The last time he was on court Nadal was the men’s all-time grand slam titles leader with 22 career majors.
But he has had to painfully watch ever since as Djokovic landed three of the four slams in 2023 to move to 24 major crowns of his own.
The race could be back on if Nadal can reprise the form that helped him capture a second Australian Open title in 2022, then a mind-boggling 14th French Open trophy five months later before injury intervened.
Nadal will continue his comeback on Thursday against Australian Jason Kubler, who has parlayed his own wildcard entry into a second-round foray.
Kubler was locked up at 6-4 6-7 (4-7) in his opener on Tuesday night when Russian eighth seed and 2021 Australian Open semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev unexpectedly retired with injury after winning the second set.