Rafael Nadal set for Australian Open return, but could he face Novak Djokovic in first round?

Rafael Nadal in action

Rafael Nadal’s inactivity in 2023 has seen him slip to No 242 in the ATP Rankings and by the time next year’s Australian Open rolls around he could find himself ranked outside the top 600.

But there is no reason to be worried that Nadal could possibly miss out on next year’s season-opening Grand Slam – or any of the other majors – as he will be able to use his protected ranking.

If he doesn’t want to use the protected ranking then there is no doubt that tournament organisers will scramble to give him a wildcard.

How does the protected ranking work and why does Nadal qualify for one?

As per the official ATP website, a protected ranking is “a ranking assigned to a player who has been unable, due to injury, to compete in any tennis event for a minimum of six (6) months”.

Nadal has been sidelined with a hip injury since January this year and he was ranked inside the top 10 when he first picked up the injury so that automatically gives him special dispensation, but he has to make a request to use the protected ranking and there is a timeframe.

“A player may petition the ATP CEO or his designee for an Entry Protection when he is physically injured and does not compete in any tennis event for a minimum period of six months. The written petition must be received within six months of his last tournament,” the rules state.

“The Entry Protection shall be a position in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, as determined by the player’s average Pepperstone ATP Rankings position during the first three months of his injury. The Entry Protection shall be for entry into the main draw or qualifying competition or for special exempt consideration.”

Would Nadal be able to use his protected ranking to get a seeding?

The answer is no as the ATP website states: “The Entry Protection shall not be used for seeding purposes, Lucky Loser consideration or for entry into the Nitto ATP Finals.

“The Entry Protection shall be in effect for either the first nine tournaments that the player competes in using the Entry Protection (excluding wild cards and entries as a Direct Acceptance with his current position in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings) or for the period up to nine months beginning with the first tennis event that the player competes in, whichever occurs first.”

With Nadal unable to get a seeding with a protected ranking, it means he will be able to face any of the big guns – including defending champion Novak Djokovic and world No 2 Carlos Alcaraz – during the opening rounds of the 2024 Australian Open.

The same applies to Nick Kyrgios, who has already dropped out of the ATP Rankings following his injury-ravaged season as he will be able to use a protected ranking in the mid-20s for next year’s Australian Open.

It could lead to some exciting early matches at next year’s season-opening major.

What about the WTA Tour?

Different regulations apply to the WTA as players can freeze their rankings and when they return they are able to use their special ranking – as described in the rulebook – for a seeding.

Furthermore, a player can use the special ranking for up to eight tournaments in a one-year period if they are out of action between six months to one year. If they are out of action for a year or more, they can use the special ranking for up to 12 tournaments in a one-year period.

READ MORE: ATP Rankings: Nick Kyrgios has officially tumbled out of the rankings. Will Rafael Nadal follow?