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Rafael Nadal to miss Australian Open due to injury – plus why risk-averse approach makes sense

Rafael Nadal receives treatment/Rafael Nadal to miss Australian Open due to injury
Nadal picked up the hip injury during his quarter-final loss to Jordan Thompson at the Brisbane International - Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal has pulled out of the Australian Open just a week into his long-awaited comeback, due to an injury sustained at the Brisbane Open.

The first major of the year begins in Melbourne in seven days, but 22-time major champion Nadal will not be there. He cut short his return to the tennis tour after just three singles matches and has flown back to Spain to “get some treatment”.

Brisbane was his first singles tournament in 11 months, and the start of what Nadal, 37, has suggested may be his final season before retirement.

After a hugely impressive showing in his first two matches, on Friday Nadal took a medical timeout during the third set of his three-hour match against Jordan Thompson, due to discomfort in his left thigh. After further tests, Nadal took the decision to skip the first major of the year.

Early glimpses of Nadal back on court had been promising pre-injury
Early glimpses of Nadal back on court had been promising pre-injury - Jono Searle/Shutterstock

“During my last match in Brisbane I had a small problem on a muscle that as you know made me worried. Once I got to Melbourne I have had the chance to make an MRI and I have micro tear on a muscle, not in the same part where I had the injury and that’s good news,” Nadal said in a statement posted on social media on Sunday.

“Right now I am not ready to compete at the maximum level of exigence in five sets matches. I’m flying back to Spain to see my doctor, get some treatment and rest. I have worked very hard during the year for this comeback and as I always mentioned my goal is to be at my best level in three months.

“Within the sad news for me for not being able to play in front of the amazing Melbourne crowds, this is not very bad news and we all remain positive with the evolution for the season. I really wanted to play here in Australia and I have had the chance to play a few matches that made me very happy and positive.”

Analysis: Australian Open deemed too big a risk in expected swansong year

There had been fears that three competitive matches across four days may have aggravated the left hip injury which curtailed almost the entire 2023 season for Nadal.

Before this past week, Nadal last played a competitive singles match at the Australian Open in January 2023, defeated in the second round due in part to his ailing body. It has taken him nearly an entire year to rebuild his strength and recover completely, including through undergoing surgery last June.

His confirmation that the new injury is not related to the persistent hip trouble he had in 2023 is extremely good news. But that it was serious enough to end his time Down Under remains a concern.

His withdrawal will be a disappointment not only to his team but to organisers in Melbourne too. The level and intensity with which he played this week in Brisbane had increased the expectations around him for the Australian Open. Six hours and 19 minutes on court ultimately pushed him too far and this blip in his comeback is the result.

The decision to fly back to Spain is an indication of just how cautiously Nadal is approaching what could be his farewell to tennis. Nadal will no doubt be targeting Roland Garros – where he has won a record-breaking 14 titles – as his greatest priority this season, alongside a potential final bow at the Olympics in Paris. Pushing any minor injury at the Australian Open was deemed too big a risk to take, as last season taught him just how long his body can take to make a full recovery at his age.

Jeopardising his chances to compete at those key events in 2024 was not an option. His great rival Roger Federer was unable to go out on his own terms due to persistent knee injuries and, as a player who has suffered from a number of chronic physical issues (including a persistent foot problem and knee injuries) Nadal has made no secret that his hope is to have more of a say in how he sees out his career.

Nadal’s risk-averse approach to this latest setback is all part of that bigger picture.

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