Rafael Nadal has attempted to play down his “impossible” Australian Open title hopes in what shapes as the first stop on his 2024 farewell world tour.
But for the Spanish 37-year-old who is set to return at the Brisbane International from Sunday after almost a year out with injury, Australia is a place where impossible happens.
The 22-time major champion’s last match was a round-two loss at the Australian Open in January earlier this year, with Nadal eventually opting for surgery to fix his troublesome hip in June.
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Thousands of fans queued for a glimpse of the tennis great at a gathering in inner-city Brisbane on Friday when a cheery Nadal was keen to water down the prospect of a title in the city – or a third Australian Open crown next month.
“It’s impossible to think about winning tournaments today,” he said when told Australian world No.40 Alexei Popyrin had tipped him to win the Brisbane event.
“What’s really possible is to enjoy the comeback. I don’t expect much; one year without being on the court.”
But he was quick to recall his Melbourne Park triumphs when prompted, two against-the-odds titles won in 2009 and 2022 that debunk the current world No.672’s low expectations.
In 2009 he outlasted countryman Fernando Verdasco over five hours in the semi-final, before going the distance two days later in a four-hour epic to beat Roger Federer.
Thiteen years later, after six months sidelined with a foot injury, he came from two sets behind to beat Daniil Medvedev in the final.
“I still don’t know,” he said of how he won that 2009 title.
“Before the match it was impossible to imagine myself winning that match.”
Nadal, who missed last year’s French Open after winning it for a staggering 14th time a year earlier, has said 2024 is “probably going to be my last year on the professional tour”.
But he said he was encouraged by his fitness, confessing he feels “much better than what I expected a month ago”.
“I can’t have super long-term goals because I don’t see myself playing a super long time,” he said on Friday.
“I don’t know how things are going to keep going.
“I’m not a player who tries to predict what can happen in the short term, and it’s even tougher in the medium period of time.
“I need to accept the adversity and that it’s not going to be perfect, just come with the right spirit every day.”
World No.8 Holger Rune is the highest-ranked male in the Brisbane field, while Andy Murray, Ben Shelton, Grigor Dimitrov and Sebastian Korda headline the internationals.
Popyrin and Max Purcell were automatic entries while fellow Australians Rinky Hijikata and Aleksandar Vukic were awarded wildcards into the main draw.
Thanasi Kokkinakis and Chris O’Connell are both prepared to qualify, alongside US Open champion Dominic Thiem and Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini from Saturday.
But that Australian pair could still earn late main draw call-ups once any withdrawals are confirmed on Friday afternoon.
Naomi Osaka will return after the birth of her child in a stacked women’s draw.