Rafael Nadal has wasted no time in getting into his rhythm following his long-awaited return to tennis. The Spaniard stormed to another impressive victory over Australian Jason Kubler in the second round of the Brisbane International. Nadal returned with a bang in the first round, securing a straight sets win over Dominic Thiem in his first singles match following year-long injury absence, and he continued his fine form with another 2-0 to progress to the Quarter Finals.
"Victories and hours spent on court help. For me, every day that I have the chance to play is great news, so I’m just happy for that, happy that I came back after a long time and feel competitive. Let’s see how far I can go."
“Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me after probably one of the toughest years of my tennis career without a doubt,” Nadal said on court following the victory.
“To have the chance to come back after a year and play in front of an amazing crowd and play at a very positive level is something that probably makes us feel proud – myself, all the team, family that have been there every single day during the last year.
Nadal explained how Roger Federer was able to change his game when he made his heroic return to tennis in 2017, following six months on the sidelines. The Spaniard beat Federer just once in their five meetings from that point, revealing that a “bigger racket” helped his rival to be more aggressive.
It’s not the first time one of the sport’s biggest champions has come back from a lengthy injury spell, as Nadal did the same at the start of the 2022 season while Novak Djokovic enjoyed a resurgence in mid-2018 following an elbow procedure. And Federer famously experienced one of the best seasons of his career in 2017 after a knee injury forced him to stop playing after Wimbledon in 2016.
The Swiss star returned in Australia and managed to win his first Grand Slam title in five years, beating four top ten players en route. That included Nadal, who himself was back after spending three months sidelined. And the Spaniard has now shed light on how Federer managed to adapt his game to enjoy a few more successful years before retiring.
“When he returned in 2017, after his injury, he made a very important change,” the 22-time Grand Slam champion told El Pais. “He changes the racket for a bigger one, which hits harder, and makes a mental change. Since he knows that he can't run like before, he becomes a much more aggressive player, and it hurts me a lot.”
Before Federer’s comeback, Nadal had a 23-11 record against his rival. By the time the 103-time title winner retired in 2022, the Spaniard was 24-16 in their head-to-head. And Nadal admitted that the changes Federer made meant that he couldn’t hurt him like he used to.
The 37-year-old continued: “He was a better player than me on hard court, but until that moment I think I had beaten him more times there. But he reinvents himself, and adds another twist to his game: hyperaggressive.
“My tactic of punishing his backhand still works, but it doesn't have as much effect because he won't let me, he plays very fast. He wouldn't allow me to do my rep against his weak point. It's something he had made a mistake in his career, he let me repeat the shots to his backhand. His exit was a sliced backhand, and I have a very good ball when it is sliced, it doesn't bother me, I like to return it and I return it hard, I'm not uncomfortable.”
Despite their fierce rivalry, Federer and Nadal enjoyed a friendly relationship off of the court. When the Swiss star decided to retire at the Laver Cup in London’s O2 Arena, Nadal flew in to team up with Federer for one final doubles match.
Nadal is set to take part in the 2024 Australian Open, which starts on 14th January, before setting his sights on French Open and Wimbledon in the summer for his final season. "Probably".