When could Rafael Nadal make his return to tennis and what are the realistic expectations?

Kevin Palmer
Rafael Nadal on the comeback trail
Rafael Nadal on the comeback trail

Rafael Nadal is on the comeback trail and an announcement is expected imminently on when he makes his return to the sport.

The 37-year-old has not been in action since suffering a hip flexor injury during his second-round defeat to Mackenzie McDonald during the 2023 Australian Open.

Earlier this year, Nadal announced he would miss the French Open, where he has claimed 14 of his 22 major titles, as he was undergoing surgery on the issue.

He stated his intention to return to tennis for one final year in 2024, but there have been doubts over the progress he has been making in practice sessions at his Academy in Mallorca.

Now he has confirmed he is on his way back to the tour and expects to compete again at the start of 2024.

Here is what we can expect:

WHEN WILL NADAL RETURN?

The former world No 1 could make a comeback at one of the warm-up events ahead of the Australian Open in January, with an appearance representing Spain at the United Cup a real possibility.

He could also play in the ATP Tour event in Adelaide if he is serious about playing at the Australian Open.

WHAT ABOUT A DELAYED RETURN?

Nadal could look to make a more measured comeback in an indoor hard court event in Europe in February or maybe at the Dubai ATP event at the end of that month.

That would lead him into the Indian Wells and Miami Masters events in March.

He could opt to make a calculated decision to focus on a clay court return, with his immaculate record on that surface ensuring he will be a threat if he can stay fit head of the French Open in May.

WHAT ABOUT HIS RANKING?

Nadal will have dropped off the ATP rankings list by the start of the Australian Open, but he will have a protected ranking due to his injury and will naturally get wildcards into every event he wishes to enter given his status as one of the game’s all-time greats.

With virtually no ranking points to defend from 2023, Nadal could climb the ATP rankings quickly when he returns, but that may not be his chief focus as he admits next year will be his last as a professional.

WHAT NADAL SAYS

“Until now, I didn’t know if I would ever play tennis again and now I think so. What has changed from a few weeks ago to now is that now I know that I am going to play tennis again,” said the Mallorcan.

“I didn’t know it before, but now, honestly, I know it because the evolution is positive. Big steps have been taken lately. I’m not yet ready to say where. When I know, I will be the first to say it. It’s a good period of my life. It’s a step forward, without a doubt, and it means a lot.”

WHAT HIS RIVALS SAY

Novak Djokovic: “I think it would be nice for the sport to have at least one more match between Nadal and me. That’s the biggest rivalry in terms of the amount of matches played that this sport ever had. Hopefully that can happen.

“He’s a big warrior. He’s somebody that really never gives up. With all the injuries that he had, keeps going. That’s definitely something that you have to respect and admire about him and his spirit. For the world of tennis, no doubt that it’s amazing news that he’ll be back.”