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Nadal returns with a win in Brisbane in first competitive singles match in a year

It was only a matter of weeks ago he wasn’t certain he’d be ready to return from a long-term hip injury

Rafael Nadal
Spain's Rafael Nadal hits a return against Austria's Dominic Thiem at the Brisbane International tennis tournament in Brisbane on January 2, 2024.WILLIAM WEST (AFP)

His arms raised triumphantly, unable to conceal a winner’s grin, Rafael Nadal took time to savor a victory that was 12 months and a lot of rehab in the making.

Sure, it was the first round of a season-opening tournament, but it felt momentous for the 22-time major winner because it was only a matter of weeks ago he wasn’t certain he’d be ready to return from a long-term hip injury.

The 37-year-old Spaniard showed no signs of rust at the Brisbane International on Tuesday in a 7-5, 6-1 win over Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open in 2020 and has a career-high No. 3 ranking but is making a slow return from injury himself.

“Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me,” Nadal said. “And to play at the very positive level on the first day is something that probably makes (me) feel proud.

“It’s been the longest period of time without being in a professional tournament since I started my tennis career, so, yeah, it’s an amazing feeling to come back.”

Nadal hadn’t played a singles match at the elite level since a second-round exit at the Australian Open last January. The protracted recovery from a surgically repaired hip didn’t seem to slow him.

He made just a handful of unforced errors, lost only six points on his serve in the entire match and hit some stunning forehand winners. After making the decisive break at 6-5 in the first set, he dominated the latter stages of the match.

Ranked No. 672 and playing on a wild card in Brisbane, Nadal said the last year had been the toughest of his professional career.

“You go on court and you have more nerves than usual because you (are) really at the end (of rehab and) 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.”

He was content with his low error rate, with his game management and with how his body felt after his initial foray back at the top level.

“I didn’t make a lot of bad decisions choosing the shots that I have to play, and that’s something difficult after such a long time,” he said. “Something that I’m happy with.”

Nadal will next play Australian wild card Jason Kubler, who was one set apiece with Aslan Karatsev at 6-4, 6-7 (4) when the No. 8 seed retired injured.

Play on outside courts was interrupted by rain for a second consecutive day but went ahead in the covered Pat Rafter Arena. In the day’s first result, No. 51-ranked Yannick Hanfmann of Germany beat fifth-seeded Sebastian Korda 7-5, 6-4.

Hanfmann will next play Jordan Duckworth, a 6-3, 6-4 winner over JJ Wolf.

In the women’s draw, 2020 Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin was upset by No. 113-ranked Arina Rodionova 7-5, 7-6 (7) in the second round.

No. 14-seeded Kenin was constantly under pressure on her serve despite having chances in both sets against Rodionova, a 34-year-old Australian who has never been ranked in the top 100.

Victoria Azarenka, another former Brisbane International and Australian Open champion, was broken twice while serving for the match before finally converting on her fifth match point to beat Anna Kalinskaya 6-1, 7-6 (8).

“First matches are never easy to close out,” Azarenka said. “Definitely a few things to work on, but I’m pretty happy with a first win.”

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