After endless days of discussion over a niggling back injury and his inability to compete in the week leading up to the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal finally returned to competition for the first time in three months on Tuesday. He easily defeated Serbia’s Laslo Djere 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 to move into the second round after testing his back for the first time there.
Nadal had not competed since the ATP Finals, when he ended the 2020 season in a flurry of mixed emotions. Although he fell to both Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem then, both were narrow defeats. He departed for the off-season hopeful of further progress to come and he was pleased with his work. During one of his first practice sessions with Dominic Thiem in Adelaide, it was all undone by a stiff back.
His presence on Tuesday was a reassuring sight for many. After skipping the ATP Cup and not serving until a few days before he was due to compete, Nadal managed to do so at a high enough level to keep his opponent at bay. At no point did he look in discomfort and he won 83% of points on his first serve. From the baseline, he limited his exertion by moving close to the baseline and dictating points as soon as the opportunity arose.
After his victory he offered a detailed description of his physical issues in the Spanish portion of his press conference. Nadal explained that he has had to alter his service motion in order to manage the pain. “It’s difficult for people who don’t play tennis professionally to understand. But clearly the shot that is limited is my serve,” he said. “In the other shots, I’m not limited. What happens is when you serve (with the injury), you have to be careful with every movement. So when the serve lands and you have to follow up the second ball, the recovery is slower.
“This has repercussions in the general game. It doesn’t allow you to play with the aggression or intensity that gives you the fact of playing without having to think. When you serve every time thinking of what to do so that you don’t worsen the situation, then clearly the whole game is affected”.
“Nadal is counting on his body improving as the week endures, but he will be without the preparation of a warm-up tournament unlike his rivals of last week. During an interview with Eurosport, he described himself as “an expert of living with these problems after so many years”. The world No 2 has frequently played through pain or arrived with stinted preparation many times, and he has frequently succeeded at the end. He will try to do so again.
“Tomorrow a day off. After tomorrow, another match,” he said. “I need to go day-to-day and just try to stay positive. Of course every day that I am trying to stay here longer is a day with a chance to get better finally, so that’s what I am trying. Trying to do all the things possible to be ready for compete, for what I came here.
“Was I feeling prepared fully? No,” she said. “But also going into a grand slam, or a tournament, it’s like: ‘OK, I’ll have to do the best I can with what I have.’ That was my mentality. Today I felt that I’ve done that to the best of my ability”.
Rafa Nadal faces Michael Mmoh in his next game of the ongoing 2021 Austrian Open.