Midway through a Parisian evening six months and one week ago, Rafael Nadal had set point for a two-sets-to-one lead against Novak Djokovic in the Roland-Garros semifinals. He had survived a terrifying stretch of error-free tennis from his opponent, coming back from 3-5 down to gain the set point at 6-5. He looked vulnerable, more so than he usually does at Roland-Garros, but he still looked like himself. Things have changed quite a bit since, and not just because Djokovic saved the set point with a drop shot and went on to win the match, playing some of the best tennis of the year. Nadal played just two more matches for the rest of the season. His congenital disease in his tarsal scaphoid, the pain from which he’s been able to manage for years, flared up in force. Though Nadal stayed in the top ten, ending the 2021 season at #6 in the world, there were question marks surrounding his comeback.
Returning from injury is nothing new for Nadal. In the 2010s, physical issues forced him out of seven major tournaments, either through mid-match retirement or withdrawal. This is a lot. (By comparison, Djokovic and Federer each missed or retired from two majors due to injury in the same time frame) Nadal has previously been able to ascend to the top of the game each time he’s been knocked out by an injury, but this time may pose new challenges.
Nadal is now 35 years old. He plays differently than he used to. He was once able to race around the court endlessly, so much so that he could usually paper over his weakness of hitting backhands from a wide position on the court. At 35, playing the marathon game is no longer a feasible possibility for him. Djokovic has been able to make his exceptional defense last into his mid-thirties, but Nadal’s ability to play attritional matches hasn’t had the same longevity. Nadal has had to beef up his serve and backhand; he comes to net more now than he used to. These adjustments have kept him near the top of the rankings, but he’s not the physical force he was in his prime years.
Presumably, Nadal will still be a threat to win Roland-Garros if he is fit. At the other majors, though, his prospects seem dim. It’s tempting to say he could win another U.S. Open, since he won the last time he took part in that tournament (2019). But since then, Medvedev has improved greatly on hard court, Thiem and Tsitsipas have each recorded a win over Nadal at the Australian Open, and Djokovic, ever Nadal’s biggest tormentor, has largely remained healthy. Since winning that U.S. Open, Nadal has been close to his best at just one hard court tournament, the 2020 World Tour Finals, and even there, he lost to Thiem and Medvedev. The best-case scenario for Nadal seems like another Roland-Garros title or two.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Roland-Garros isn’t until halfway through the 2022 season. Nadal has just played his first tournament since Washington D.C. in August, the Mubadala exhibition. He lost in straight sets to three-time major champion Andy Murray, who is currently ranked 134th in the world. He then fell to world #14 Denis Shapovalov in a super tiebreak after splitting sets. Do these results mean much, and if so, what?
The short answer is that the two losses don’t seem that significant. Players are often rusty after a comeback, having lost touch with the competitive rigors of professional matches. Nadal’s return of serve was iffy, managing just one break of serve between the two matches. There were the vintage moments where Nadal set up a forehand down the line winner with a backhand slice or put away a soft volley at net, but overall quality was lacking. Nadal stole the first set of today’s match from Shapovalov after trailing 4-5, 15-30 on the return, but went on to lose the second set and the tiebreak to 10 points. He hit plenty of errors, including misses on shots where he wasn’t trying to place the ball especially close to the lines.
There was one game against Murray, with the Scot serving at 4-5 in the second set, which encapsulated both Nadal’s successes and struggles. The Spaniard began the game with a crosscourt backhand winner at a tight angle. He set up 15-30 with a forehand winner down the line. But when Nadal led in the game, at both love-15 and 15-30, he hit short second serve returns and made unforced errors on the following shot. Murray held serve, broke in the following game, then served out the match: 6-3, 7-5.
Nadal is yet to commit to playing the Australian Open. His primary goal is likely the clay season, so it probably won’t even be a huge cause for concern if he doesn’t play in Melbourne.
At the end of the day, Mubadala saw Nadal play two short exhibition matches on fast hard court, not ideal surface conditions for the Spaniard. It’s just not a very big sample size of match play to judge from. Nadal didn’t play as well as he could have, but his movement looked unhampered, and considering the events of the last six months, that’s probably a win all by itself.
It remains to be seen whether Nadal can get himself into the same spot he was in during that Roland-Garros semifinal: a favorable position in a big match. Mubadala certainly didn’t provide enough evidence to make a call either way. But Nadal is trying to get back to where he has been before, and if his career has taught us anything, it’s that he won’t stop trying until a chance is completely dead and buried.