Rafael Nadal is focused on clay – and other things we learned from the first Australian Open warm-up week

For months, Rafael Nadal has been trying to temper expectations for his comeback, telling the world that he had little sense of whether he would ever return to his championship form or anything approaching it.

On Sunday, Nadal showed the world why he was so cautious. At 37 years old, he knows how brittle he is and after suffering a slight tear in his muscle at a tuneup tournament in Brisbane, Nadal announced on his social media channels that he was pulling out of the Australian Open.

“Hi all, during my last match in Brisbane I had a small problem on a muscle that as you know made me worried,” Nadal wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “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. Right now I am not ready to compete at the maximum level of exigence in five-set matches. I’m flying back to Spain to see my doctor, get some treatment and rest.”

What Nadal hinted at during his few exchanges with the media in Australia and what became crystal clear Sunday is that achieving great results in these first weeks of the season, on hard courts and after being away from the game for nearly a year, was never the priority. Nadal has won the French Open 14 times. He is known as the “King of Clay”. Tennis does not start happening on the red clay he excels on until April. He is intensely focused on being in top form then, not now, and for Roland Garros, which begins in late May, and likely for the Olympics, which will take place at Roland Garros in late July.

“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,” Nadal wrote on Sunday. “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.”

Whether Nadal’s hip, knees, or chronically injured foot allow him to play is anyone’s guess. Modern tennis, especially the brutally physical brand of it that Nadal plays, is not kind to the ageing athlete. Ask Roger Federer and Andy Murray, or Novak Djokovic, who dedicates so many waking hours to maintaining his health and is battling a niggle in his wrist right now.

But Nadal showed in his three matches in Brisbane that he still knows how to play tennis. Say what you want about his opponents — a faded Dominic Thiem and two middling Aussies, Jason Kubler and Jordan Thompson – there were moments when Nadal looked as slick as ever, especially when he sprinted after drop-shots from deep in the court and pulled off those running, angled flicks that only seem to come out of his hands.

(Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

He also lost three match points to Thompson in the second set and had to receive medical attention for discomfort near the hip that doctors surgically repaired last year. After losing the match, Nadal signalled that playing in the year’s first Grand Slam would depend on how he felt the next morning and in the ensuing days. “After a year it is difficult for the body to be playing tournaments at the highest level.”

There’s a glass-half-full view of all this. Had Nadal won those match points, he might have been tempted to play in the semifinal on Saturday and possibly a final on Sunday, risking a more serious injury. He got in three matches and reminded himself that he can play sublime tennis against solid competition, at least for a few sets. Now comes some rest and recovery.

Whatever happens next in terms of his playing schedule, there is now zero doubt where his focus lies — the red clay of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Paris.

What else?

It’s just the opening week of the season, so these tournaments mean nothing.

One of the biggest tournaments of the year, the Australian Open, is just days away, so players have to be in form right now. 

Only in tennis could both of those statements be true. 

After the briefest of “off-seasons”, the Australian Open starts Sunday, January 14, which means hundreds of players were doing what they could during the first days of the year (and the last days of 2023) to prepare. 

Results from the tuneup weeks come with the stock-picker’s warning — past performance is not an indicator of future success. Some top players didn’t compete at all. 

That said, we were watching what was happening in Australia, New Zealand and even Hong Kong. Here are some things that caught our eye.

Novak Djokovic lost a match in Australia. 

It doesn’t happen very much. He’s won the past four Australian Opens that he has played in, and 10 overall, but he fell 6-4, 6-4 to Alex de Minaur of Australia in the United Cup, a mixed-team competition.

The loss isn’t much of a concern. It happens.

But Djokovic is nursing a right wrist injury and received medical attention throughout the United Cup. No one knows how to take care of his body better than Djokovic. He suffered through significant injuries (hamstring and abdominal tears) at his last two Australian Opens and still won. Still, wrist injuries to tennis players can be major red flags, flaring up unpredictably at the worst moments, and there is no way to hide them.

Like Nadal, Naomi Osaka did not forget how to play tennis.

She won a match and lost another in Brisbane, but most importantly she played five tight sets, including two tiebreakers, and gave Karolina Pliskova all she could handle in her first tournament after a year layoff due to injury, struggles with mental health and maternity leave.

Their ball makes a different sound when it comes off Osaka’s racket, a kind of firecracker pop that serves as a quick reminder of why tennis is better when Osaka is playing. And the way she whacks her thigh with her left fist as she gets ready for a big point… if that doesn’t get the juices flowing, it’s hard to say what will.

Iga Swiatek is in a good place. 

Yes, the world No 1 was winning a lot of matches for Poland in the United Cup, often blitzing her opponents in her usual way, but she also seemed lighter, not carrying around that ranking like Atlas trying to hold up the globe.

She even joked about the thing she hates to joke about – “Iga’s Bakery”. That’s the nickname the media has given to all of her 6-0 (bagel) and 6-1 (breadstick) sets. After she and Hubert Hurkacz partnered to beat Spain 6-0, 6-0, she said she would consider hiring Hurkacz as one of her bakers.

Coco Gauff had about as good a start as she could have wanted. 

She headed to Auckland to defend her season-opening title in the ASB Classic. Gauff won the last Grand Slam at the U.S. Open. Starting the season as a Grand Slam champion can mess with the mind. 

Gauff reeled five straight wins, taking 10 of 11 sets, defending her title with a win over Elina Svitolina, healthy once more, thankfully, in the hard-fought final, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3. Gauff was clearly wiped out at the WTA Finals in early November. She skipped the Billie Jean King Cup finals the next week in Spain. After a nice little break, she looked rested and sharp.

She could get a bad draw and lose in the first round of the Australian Open, but she could not have kicked off her season any better. 

Svitolina shut herself down after the U.S. Open with a stress fracture in her ankle.

Returning to competition on hard courts, which aggravated the injury during the summer, is not ideal. But Svitolina appeared to be playing, and winning, without pain in New Zealand. That’s good news.

(Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Frances Tiafoe took the court for the first time in a while without Wayne Ferreira guiding him. 

Tiafoe and Ferreira parted ways after spending the better part of four seasons together and making the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2022.

Tiafoe made the top 10 for the first time last year but slipped in the final months of the season and said he was entering 2024 looking to have more fun, play more aggressively, and be less results-focused under the guidance of Diego Moyano.

“A lot of 2023 I was putting a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “I really wanted to do well. It was really hard for me. Still had a great year, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the big events.”

Tiafoe went 1-1 at the Hong Kong Open, losing his quarterfinal match to J.C. Shang of China. 

Which brings us to this: keep an eye on J.C. Shang this season.

He is just 18 years old and already showing off acres of upside. Shang has spent much of his time at the IMG Academy during his tennis life. (IMG once upon a time guided Li Na of China to her groundbreaking career.) He qualified for the Australian Open last year and won a match before losing to Tiafoe. He also qualified for the French Open. 

In addition to beating Tiafoe in Hong Kong, he beat the highly regarded Botic van de Zandschulp. Shang lost to Andrey Rublev, who enjoyed a tip-top first week, in the semifinals.

Again, take those results for what they are — early season wins off veterans trying to find their rhythm – but when teenagers beat seasoned pros it catches the eye.

Emma Raducanu is alive and playing tennis again.

The 2021 U.S. Open champion had triple surgery last spring – two wrists and one ankle. She has set expectations low and is hoping everyone else does, too, since she’s basically starting from scratch, ranked 301st in the world when the year started. 

“I feel reborn,” she said. 

She moved well and crushed some backhands in her opening match, which she won. She was on the verge of winning a second before Svitolina caught her in three sets. 

She will now play in the Australian Open main draw without having to go through qualifying, which might be a curse in disguise. She could probably use the matches and did pretty well the last time she played qualifiers at a Grand Slam at that 2021 U.S. Open. 

Like Nadal though, Raducanu is just hoping to stay healthy. 

(Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Jelena Ostapenko, the fiery Latvian, hasn’t changed one bit during the break. 

Ostapenko was not happy with a call by the chair umpire Julie Kjendlie during her loss to Victoria Azarenka. 

“You will never be on my match again,” Ostapenko railed at Kjendlie. “You ruin my matches.” 

So on-brand.

A few very big names decided to skip warm-up week altogether.

Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Daniil Medvedev are heading into the year’s first Grand Slam without any competitive tuneups. That’s three of the top four men, but also three players who played a ton of tennis last year and in the case of Alcaraz and Sinner, two players who are still trying to figure out how to optimize their schedules. 

Alcaraz also missed the Australian Open last season with a last-minute injury and he certainly did not want that to happen again. 

Sinner reached the finals of the season-ending ATP Finals and then led Italy to the Davis Cup. 

Medvedev, well, he does a lot of unorthodox things when it comes to tennis, like hitting a forehand like someone trying to swat a mosquito in the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle. 

May it ever be thus.

(Top photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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