Rafael Nadal Returns to Australian Open With More Modest Expectations

MELBOURNE, Australia — As he begins his 20th season on the ATP Tour, Rafael Nadal, famously exacting and particular on the court, is allowing himself — and others — some grace.

In a news conference last week, a reporter asked Nadal how he felt about the conditions in Melbourne, given that “you haven’t reached the semifinals at the Australian Open since you won the title in 2009.”

After an initial look of puzzlement while listening to the question, Nadal, amused, gently pushed back on its premise, given that he has reached the final at Melbourne Park four times since winning the 2009 title. “I am very sorry to tell you,” Nadal said, listing the years in which he had made the final. “I don’t want to.”

In an interview, Nadal said that while “normally I don’t play if I don’t think that I will be good,” that he was ready to lower expectations for himself out of a desire to compete.

“Because I didn’t play for five, six months, I really take it in a different way,” Nadal said. “I said, OK, I want to be back on the tour, even if the preparation is not fantastic. I need to be back if I want myself to be competitive again as soon as possible. I need to be there. I need to practice with the guys. I need to be playing some professional matches — and that’s what I did.”

Nadal had looked ready to return to the tour when he entered an exhibition in Abu Dhabi in December, but he became one of six players at the event to contract the coronavirus. After testing negative on the morning of his flights home to Spain, Nadal began to feel ill on the plane. Out of concern for older relatives, he went straight from the airport to a hospital to get tested before returning home, and he stayed isolated after receiving his result.

After four days of painful symptoms and high fevers, Nadal had another three days of fatigue. “I was destroyed, like super-tired,” said Nadal, who said he was vaccinated. “I was not able to move much.”

Nadal climbed back onto an exercise bike eight days after his diagnosis and slowly began pedaling uphill toward a recovery. After just two practices near his home in Spain, Nadal decided to take the trip to Australia for more preparation and to play some real, if low-stakes, matches.

In his first tournament since last August, Nadal won a small ATP 250 competition in Melbourne in the first week of the season. He faced one of the least daunting paths of his career — three opponents ranked outside the top 90 and his quarterfinal opponent pulled out before their match.

Those breaks gave Nadal a quick road to extending a long streak: his 7-6(6), 6-3 win in the final over the American serve-and-volleyer Maxime Cressy made this the 19th straight season in which he has won at least one ATP title. (In all but the first of those years, Nadal had always won at least two.)

There has, of course, been quality in Nadal’s quantity, including the 20 Grand Slam singles titles that have him in a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal after beating Novak Djokovic in the French Open men’s singles final in 2020, Nadal’s last Grand Slam tournament victory.Credit…Ian Langsdon/EPA, via Shutterstock

Asked how his win in the warm-up tournament might set him up for the Australian Open, where Nadal could take sole possession of the record for the first time, Nadal, who missed both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, quickly set expectations.

The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia

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A vaccine exemption question. Novak Djokovic was refused entry to Australia over questions about a Covid vaccine exemption. After he challenged the ruling in court, a judge allowed him to enter. Authorities then revoked his visa again, and he lost his final bid to stay when a three-judge panel upheld the decision.

How it started. The standoff began when Djokovic received an exemption that would allow him to defend his Australian Open title. Upon arrival, federal officials said he did not meet the requirements for entry because he was unvaccinated, and canceled his visa.

How it ended. For more than a week, the world gawked at a conflict centered on the controversial tennis star, filled with legal minutiae and dramatic ups and downs. Ultimately, Djokovic lost to a government with powerful laws that was determined to make an example out of him.

The bigger picture. Amid a difficult time in Australia’s fight against Covid, the standoff highlighted the growing public outcry against high-profile vaccine skeptics like Djokovic when they want to play by different rules than everyone else.

What happens next. It is unclear what will happen at the next major tournaments on the men’s tour, but the standoff in Australia presages some of the headwinds Djokovic could face if he attempts to travel the world without being vaccinated for Covid-19.

“I mean, I didn’t play five-sets matches since Roland Garros,” he said. “And, of course, my preparation could be better. But here I am. I don’t expect; I just try to go day by day. I know the situation is not ideal for me to try to have an amazing result on the first Grand Slam. But you never know. If you are not here, it is difficult to have any chance. Being here, I want to try my best.”

Nadal spoke with generosity, if audible frustration, about Djokovic, who had been a clear favorite to win a record 10th Australian Open men’s singles title this month before complicating his chances by attempting to enter the country and play while unvaccinated. After being detained at an airport when the exemption he provided to get around the country’s vaccination requirements was deemed insufficient, Djokovic’s ordeal ended on Sunday when a court in Melbourne denied his request to overturn the government’s decision to revoke his visa.

“Of course it’s not good for tennis, not good for him, not good for distracting the attention from what’s important to talk about tennis and in our world,” Nadal said. “But in that way, I really feel sorry for him, you know? Even if we think a different way and we have different perspectives of the things that you have to do in these tough moments of the pandemic. I really feel a lot of sorry for him.”

Though Nadal has spoken this month of a need to listen to medical experts and of “consequences” — Djokovic is one of only three players in the ATP Top 100 to remain unvaccinated — in this interview Nadal said that he wanted to discuss Djokovic, whom he has faced an ATP-record 58 times, “more about a human person than a tennis player, no?”

“I have a huge respect for him, in general terms,” Nadal said. “We did a lot of things together; we enjoyed a lot of important moments on court. We did important things for our foundations together, too. So, in some way, I wish him all the best. I really believe that it’s important that he goes out, he explains everything.”

He added: “But I wish him the best. Even if we think different, he’s a colleague on the tour, and I respect his decisions. Even if we are not agreeing.”

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