January 3, 2024

Nadal issued an ominous warning. It spells danger for a hometown hero

By Nick Wright
January 3, 2024 — 6.45am
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A sigh of relief, a smile to the crowd, his hands clenched above his head in triumph. Rafael Nadal’s comeback was complete.

But the Spaniard has refused to suggest the ominous manner of his 7-5, 6-1 victory over Dominic Thiem was anywhere near the finished product, and it could spell danger for a looming Australian prospect.

Almost 12 months on from his last singles outing at the Australian Open, and the hip injury which threatened his career, Nadal put on a clinic in his first-round battle at the Brisbane International, to the delight of a raucous Pat Rafter Arena crowd.

And after hometown product Jason Kubler advanced against eighth seed Aslan Karatsev, with the latter forced to withdraw with the clash locked at one set apiece, it paves the way for a grandstand showdown come Thursday.

Nadal, whose 1069th tour win to take him to outright fourth behind Novak Djokovic (1087 and counting), Roger Federer (1251) and Jimmy Connors (1275), confirmed immediately after the match his body felt strong, while being pleased with the decision-making in his shot selection throughout the contest.

But for all the emotions he experienced – the self-confessed doubt that he may struggle physically – he declared this was just a small step.

An elated Rafael Nadal celebrates his dominant win over Dominic Thiem.Credit: Getty

“I played, I think, quite well honestly and if we think of all the circumstances that have been before that match it’s been very positive,” Nadal said.

“After such a long time without being in a professional tennis match … you can’t expect amazing things, but you can expect disasters. You hope that you’re going to play at this level, but inside yourself you know that it can be a disaster and that, of course, worried me.


“My way is to just try and enjoy every single day I have the chance to be on and able to play more matches – that will be more helpful in terms of recovery.

“But for me, my goal is still to be competitive in a couple of months, [and] if I am competitive [now] then fantastic. Let’s see, today is a positive day, so let’s see after tomorrow.”

Former US Open winner Dominic Thiem gave Rafael Nadal plenty to think about in the opening set.Credit: AP

Any concerns Nadal may have had surrounding his fitness appeared quashed within a few games on Tuesday night.

At times, Thiem’s array of strokes demanded the former world No.1 scramble and stretch just to stay in points. He did so with apparent ease, often producing moments of trademark magic to prevail even when all the rally’s momentum seemed to be going the other way.

In what became an enthralling battle, Nadal showed two variants to his game: the opportunist and the artist.

Down 0-15 at 4-4 in the opening set, the 37-year-old was forced to hustle for three straight points, coming up with a series of remarkable winners to regain the ascendancy.

Brisbane International day three results


Rinky Hijikata def Thanasi Kokkinakis 7-6, 6-2Rafael Nadal def Dominic Thiem 7-5, 6-1Jason Kubler def Aslan Karatsev via walkover (6-4, 6-7)Jordan Thompson def Aleksandar Vukic 6-3, 6-2Tomas Machac def Tomas Martin Etcheverry 6-7, 7-5, 7-6Daniel Altmaier def Li Tu 7-6, 7-6James Duckworth def JJ Wolf 6-3, 6-4Lukas Klein def Sebastian Baez 4-6, 6-3, 6-4Yannick Hanfmann def Sebastian Korda 7-5, 6-4

Women’s (first round)

Julia Riera def Viktoriya Tomova 6-2, 6-4Clara Burel def Zeynep Sonmez 6-4, 6-2Olivia Gadecki def Kim Birrell 4-6, 6-0, 6-4Linda Noskova def Timea Babos 5-7, 7-6, 7-6

Women’s (second round)

Arina Rodionova def Sofia Kenin 7-5, 7-6 Victoria Azarenka def Anna Kalinskaya 6-1, 7-6 

Some were brute power, the forehand his opponents have feared coming to the fore. Others were pure elegance, featuring deft drop shots that screamed finesse.

As both men proved lethal on serve, it took until the 12th game – with the Spaniard up 6-5 – for a break point chance to emerge, only for Thiem to force the first deuce of the match.

Twice the Austrian, who has been launching his own comeback from lengthy stints in the casualty ward, needed to save set points, only to rue an inability to capitalise on a mishit – sending his return straight back to Nadal’s forehand before spraying the next point wide.

From that point, it almost seemed like the Nadal of old.

Nadal converted 90 per cent of his first-serve points on Tuesday.Credit: Getty

He broke serve with his first opportunity of the second set. Then, up 4-1, he dazzled Pat Rafter Arena with a full-length reach to his left deep in his back court to keep the ball alive, and force Thiem to send his shot wide.

It proved decisive, as he iced his second break of the set before serving out the contest, while winning 90 per cent of his first-serve points.

So, after such a resounding statement, what comes next for the 22-time grand slam champion on his path back to the top?


For the man himself, the process is simple.

“If I am able to stay healthy, if I am able to practise at the level that I need to practise and play matches … then, the chances to be competitive in a not-very-long period of time are much higher,” Nadal said.

“I don’t think I will ever forget how to play tennis. You need to recover movement, that’s something that takes time. You need to recover the confidence in the movements, and that takes time. At the end after the surgery, you feel scared sometimes to do some kinds of movement, and you need to recover the speed of reading the ball and making things [happen] in an automatic way.

“That’s something where you need matches to make it happen.”

Watch the United Cup and Brisbane International tennis live and free on the 9Network with every match streaming live on 9Now and ad-free on Stan Sport.

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Nick Wright covers sport for Brisbane Times.


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