Rafael Nadal has made the starting admission that his mind, not his body, will pose the biggest obstacle to his long-awaited tennis comeback in 2024. The 22-time grand slam champion announced last weekend that he would be playing at the upcoming Brisbane International in January, before turning his focus to the Australian Open.
It will mark the first event for Nadal in almost 12 months since he hobbled out of Melbourne Park after a shock straight-sets defeat to Mackenzie McDonald, before undergoing hip surgery and struggling to get the issue right. The 37-year-old tennis great is renowned for being one of the mentally strongest players of all time, but in a candid video message on social media, the Spaniard admitted to having serious doubts about his comeback.
"I have been afraid to announce things because in the end it's a year without competing and it's a hip operation," he said. "But what worries me the most is not the hip, it's everything else.
"I think I'm ready, and I trust and hope that things go well and that it gives me the opportunity to enjoy myself on the court." Nadal has never been one to step out on a court thinking he can't win or going into a tournament without aiming to win the title but the 37-year-old says his current predicament has left him in "unexplored terrain" and forced a rethink on his normally lofty expectations.
"I expect from myself not to expect anything. This is the truth," Nadal added. "To have the ability not to demand of myself what I have demanded of myself throughout my career. I believe I'm in a different moment, in a different situation and in unexplored terrain.
"I have internalised what I have had throughout my life, which is to demand of myself the maximum. Right now what I really hope is to be able not to do that, not to demand the maximum, to accept that things are going to be very difficult at the beginning and to give myself the necessary time and forgive myself if things go wrong at the beginning, which is a very big possibility."
Rafael Nadal plans to farewell tennis in 2024
The appearance in Brisbane could mark the start of a farewell tour for the 37-year-old Spaniard, who previously said 2024 will be his last year on tour. His 18-year stay in the top-10 of the rankings ended in March and he has since plummeted to 663th in the world.
Nadal has said he wants to play the French Open in May and represent his country at the Paris Olympics in July, but both are still up in the air at this stage. While the 22-time grand slam champion has previously stated that he wouldn't be attempting a comeback if he didn't think he could win matches, the Spaniard's own admission echoes the warning from top coach Rick Macci that another grand slam title is beyond him.
“As far as Rafa coming back, as you get older, you lose a little mobility and people aren’t afraid when they know you’re vulnerable,” Macci told Tennis Infinity. “There’s not that much difference between the guys at the top and then the next tier, and when they know they have a chance, that’s a whole different thing, even on clay.
“Where before against Rafa, he’s 112-3 on clay [at the French Open]. The match was over before it even started. You knew you weren’t going to beat the guy more than likely. So that being said, I wish Rafa all the best, but he’s not at the exact same level he was before so I don’t think he’s a contender to win a slam. I think he can be competitive and I think he’s a rough out for anybody on clay, but it depends on his health.”
Nadal ended his latest message to fans with a statement that does little to convince his legion of supporters otherwise. The Spaniard said his outlook could improve in the "not-too-distant future" if "I keep the illusion and the spirit of work" and if his "physique responds" well to the rigours of returning to court.
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