With the first grand slam of the year on the horizon, tennis fans are turning their eyes down under, where players will be looking to start their season in style. in one of the most important and lucrative tournaments of the year, fans are hopeful to see some familiar faces also making a long-awaited return.
The player I am hinting towards is of course, none other than 22-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal. The 37-year-old Spaniard was due to return to the sport after a year out with a hip injury, with tennis fans all over the globe itching savour every match, since the veteran has declared that this year will be his final year on the tour.
Injuries are no new thing regarding Rafa, who has constantly dealt with them throughout his career. From elbow to foot to knee to back to wrist, he really has completed the injury bucket list. But through all of these setbacks, the ‘Matador’, as his fans like to call him, has been able to power through and rightfully declare himself as one of the greatest of all time.
Yet, his most recent one seemed like an injury too severe to overcome. In his 22 years as a professional, this has been the longest he’s been out of the game through injury. The Spaniard has been continuously delaying his return from last Summer until now. In an interview given after his first game back after 347 days, in which he won 7-5 6-1, he said “If I thought about retirement during that period of time, of course, yes. I went through a lot of things [that were] pretty bad. I did not miss the competition, because all this time my body was not ready to compete. What I missed was to be healthy; to wake up and not have pain.”
Now he’s healthy and supposedly pain free, his eyes can once again turn to the competition. Although he’s been consistently top of the rankings, not dropping out of the top 10 once in the last 18 years (2005-2023), his quality post injury is yet to be revealed.
Despite winning two of the four grand slams in 2022, as well as making the semi-finals of Wimbledon, you’d be considered a wishful thinker by most people if you think Nadal will be able to get even remotely close to those achievements in 2024.
One reason is, of course ,his age. The oldest male to win a Grand Slam is Ken Rosewall, who won the Australian Open in 1972 at the age of 37, followed by Roger Federer, who you may be more familiar with, who won the Australian in 2018 at the age of 36. So it’s not impossible for Nadal to go all the way at his age, but with Grand Slam matches being on average around three hours long, and players needing to win seven matches in order to achieve the feat, it seems very unlikely, especially considering his injury woes.
Sadly for supporters, earlier this month, Nadal announced that he will miss the upcoming Australian Open due to a muscle tear he picked up while playing in a three-hour thriller against Aussie native Jordan Thompson. Bearing in mind that, if this was a Grand Slam match, Nadal would have probably had to play at least another two hours to win (since Grand Slams are best of five sets whereas all other tournaments are best of three), so this is not a very positive sign to start the season.
Nadal fans will be pleased to hear that this injury is a very minor one, and as reported by Spanish publication ’Diario de Mallorca’, Nadal will rest for a week before restarting his training, having undergone an MRI scan the day after his loss to Thompson. The scan confirmed the injury was a muscle issue and not something more serious.
There’s a high chance however that he may save himself for the clay season, starting in the spring, to give himself the best opportunity to win a title, since clay is by far his best surface. The French Open is the tournament that will be heavily bookmarked in his diary, as it’s basically been his for the past two decades, victorious 14 out of the 16 times he’s ever competed in it.
This year will be harder than ever, not just down to his age and current physical fitness, but the competition he will have to deal with. Most notably, the (statistically) greatest tennis player of all time Novak Djokovic, who’s somehow still at the peak of his powers at the age of 36, and the ever-present ‘starboy’ of tennis Carlos Alcaraz. Nadal will most likely have to beat both, or at least one in order to get his hands on his 15th French Open title. Ironically, the last person to win a Grand Slam outside of Djokovic and Alcaraz, was Nadal himself. Yet, considering that both players have been practically unbeatable for the past year and a half, it seems like too much for even the so-called ‘King of Clay’ to overcome.
No matter how much he plays, or how well he does in the tournaments this year, Nadal wants to finish his career on his own terms, rather than through injury.That has been respected by the tennis community as a whole and is frankly the least a generational player like himself deserves. Whatever happens tennis fans will drink in every last drop of it. So sit back and enjoy the return of Rafa.