It was not always clear that Rafael Nadal would make it back to the Australian Open this year, but 20 seasons into his illustrious career, he has developed a knack for blowing past even the most generous expectations.
Nadal is indeed in Melbourne, he has already won five matches in the new year and for the first time in his career he is at a grand slam tournament without either of his greatest rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. On Wednesday, Nadal returned to Rod Laver Arena and saw off a strong performance by Yannick Hanfmann to win 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 and reach the third round of the Australian Open.
Nadal’s troubles last season had been a long time coming. As he emerged from the early lockdowns of 2020, he suffered a flare-up of a chronic left foot injury, Muller-Weiss Syndrome, which has affected him since he was young. By the time his classic French Open semi-final match against Novak Djokovic was done, he had reached his limit. Nadal played only one other tournament in 2021 before ending his season.
As he prepared his return in December, Nadal contracted Covid on his way back from Abu Dhabi like the majority of players at the event, which he said left him “very sick with fever” and in bed for a couple of days. It was not a positive moment: “A month and a half ago I didn’t know if I would play tennis again at a professional level due to various factors, including the problems I’ve had with my foot and with covid,” he told Eurosport Spain.
Instead, shortly after he returned a negative test and was cleared to enter Australia, he quietly boarded a flight to Melbourne. Expectations are tempered, but the first steps have been smooth and Nadal won the ATP 250 event in Melbourne. After his Australian Open first-round win over Marcos Giron, Nadal stared down Hanfmann, a 30-year-old qualifier ranked 126 who could not have enjoyed a more different path to one of the biggest stadiums in the world.
Rather than bursting on to the tour at a young age, Hanfmann spent his formative years playing college tennis for the University of Southern California. His progress has been incremental, a career high ranking of 92 achieved last year. In perhaps the biggest match of his life, he rose to the occasion and played extremely well from the beginning. His serve was firing, he stepped inside the baseline and rejected Nadal’s high-bouncing topspin with vicious crosscourt backhands and he frequently showed delicate touches at the net.
But the challenge of facing Nadal, whether he has four recent matches behind him or 42, remains the same. Competing to him means consistently taking those risks, making sound decisions and executing forcefully point after point for up to five long sets. Nadal comfortably navigated those challenging rallies, he moved well and struck his forehand freely. After being dragged into two complicated final service games, he held off any further complications by improving his serve under pressure at the close.
After a six-month layoff, five matches against players ranked outside of the top 50 offer no indication of how Nadal’s game and body will hold up against more challenging, higher-ranked players to come. Nadal says that the most pleasing outcome of the past few weeks is that these wins have offered him a new chance to further improve his level. He will next face either Karen Khachanov, the 28th seed, or Benjamin Bonzi.
“I’m excited about it,” he said. “I’m excited about the fact that I’m going to be playing in a third round for one more time here after all the things I am going through. I don’t have big pressure on my shoulders, honestly. I don’t feel it. The pressure is only to stay healthy and to enjoy the fact that I am competing again, then give my best as I did during all my tennis career.”
Ever since Nadal was a teenage prodigy managing chronic knee and foot injuries, so many people believed that his physicality would not be conducive to longevity in his sport. Yet at 35 years old, 20 seasons on, he is still here and his age is a frequent punchline of his own jokes. He was asked if there are any positive side to being 35, a question that most players would respond to by underlining the wealth of knowledge gained after so many years on the tour. He was having none of it.
“Well, the positive thing is I achieved much more that I never dreamed. I was able to spend almost 20 fantastic years on the tour. The rest of the things? Nothing positive because [I] arrive to the end. When you get older, the watch never stops, no? That’s the circus of life. You need to accept that. But it’s all good with me,” he said, smiling widely.