By Eleanor Crooks, PA Tennis Correspondent
Rafael Nadal will head to the Australian Open with low expectations after his latest injury lay-off but still believes he can challenge for the biggest prizes in the sport.
The Spaniard will be back on court on Friday at the exhibition Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi when he takes on either Andy Murray or Dan Evans.
It will be the first time Nadal has been seen in a match since a defeat to Lloyd Harris in Washington in early August, which was his first tournament since withdrawing from Wimbledon and the Olympics.
— Mubadala World Tennis Championship (@MubadalaWTC) December 15, 2021
The 35-year-old has been battling a left foot problem and accepts he has a long road in front of him if he is to return to top form.
Speaking at a press conference in Abu Dhabi, Nadal said: “I am super happy to be back. It’s not about pain. I had pain a lot of times during my career, almost all the time, it’s more about having the chance to have a pain that I can manage to compete well.
“Let’s see. I need to try it in competition. Of course, I am feeling better, if not I will not be here. I know the comeback will be not easy. I don’t have big expectations now.
“My only expectation is to be here, to play in front of a great crowd again, to feel myself competing again against great players, and then enjoy. It has been a very tough period of time for me, honestly, so just to be here is great news for me.
“I really hope the foot is going to get better and better to be again at the level that I want to be. If I am able to play with no limitations, I want to fight again for everything, so that’s the goal.
“My experience says that things change very quick. What today seems impossible or almost impossible, nobody knows what can happen in one month.
“It’s going to be super difficult for me. If things are going well, I’m only going to play one tournament before Australia and these two matches here so the amount of hours on court at the competitive level before such a tough and demanding tournament like Australia will be not much but the main thing is still always the same – be healthy. If I am healthy, I still have the interior fire to keep going and to fight for my goals.”
In Nadal’s absence, Djokovic drew level with the Spaniard and Roger Federer at the peak of men’s tennis with his 20th grand slam title at Wimbledon before narrowly missing out on a 21st in New York.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) December 4, 2021
Providing the world number one plays in Melbourne, he will go into the Australian Open as favourite to win a 10th title and put himself decisively out in front in the battle for supremacy in this record-breaking era of men’s tennis.
“I am outside of the competition for the last five, six months,” said Nadal. “I understand that the conversation is always there, especially with Novak that he has been playing every week almost.
“Me and Roger have been injured for such a long period of time. Of course we are equal but the chances for Novak are much higher than for us.”
The Australian Open begins at Melbourne Park on January 17th.