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Tennis: Roland-Garros, Olympics, catching up with Djokovic… What Nadal can hope for for his return

Wednesday evening, the news caused a stir in the world of the little yellow ball.

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Tennis: Roland-Garros, Olympics, catching up with Djokovic… What Nadal can hope for for his return

Wednesday evening, the news caused a stir in the world of the little yellow ball. Rafael Nadal, the man with 22 Grand Slam titles, was very optimistic about a return to competition in 2024. “I sincerely believe that I will return to the courts. I can't say yet if it will be in this place or another, but I'm happy with the way things are developing,” announced the Spaniard from a tennis clinic in Barcelona.

The fact remains that “Rafa”, 37, has not appeared on the courts since the 2023 Australian Open, where he was eliminated in the second round by the American Mackenzie Mc Donald in three short sets (6-4, 6-4, 7-5). That's almost a year without a match due to an injury to the iliopsoas, at the level of the left hip. Having fallen to 664th place in the world, the Mallorcan has no illusions about his level, assuring that “it will be difficult to return to a very high level of tennis”.

But his return is anything but a farewell tour: “If I didn't have the hope of being competitive again, I wouldn't have done the work I did these months, the effort that you have to do after a very long career, when the years take their toll,” he warns. So much so that he is now looking beyond 2024, which was to be his last year on the circuit. “If I feel competitive and love what I do, why would I limit myself?” With Rafael Nadal, nothing seems impossible.

In mid-May 2023, it was with a heavy heart and a voice full of emotion that, from Manacor, Rafael Nadal announced his withdrawal from his favorite tournament. "Roland Garros ? Impossible. You can imagine how difficult it is for me to make this decision, dictated by my body. I’m not the type of guy who comes to Roland-Garros just to be there and to try,” he explained. Hear: only victory interests him on the Porte d'Auteuil side.

Winner of the Coupe des Mousquetaires 14 times (2005 to 2008, 2010 to 2014, 2017 to 2020, 2022), the Majorcan necessarily marked the 2024 edition of the Parisian Grand Slam (May 20-June 9) in his calendar. It is undoubtedly there, on this beloved ocher land, in his kingdom, that he has the best chance of shining, and one day regaining a major title. If he lines up, it will not be to say one last hello to an audience who admired him so much, but to play tricks. From there to winning the tournament... It's hard to imagine as the “bull of Manacor” seemed close to giving up everything just a few months ago. “The idea is not to come back to win Roland Garros or the Australian Open. People should not be surprised, all this is a long way away, I am aware of the difficulties I am encountering,” he told Movistar in September.

Reason for hope for die-hard fans of “Rafa”: winning a major tournament coming back from injury, he has already done it. After almost six months of convalescence at the end of 2021 to treat his foot, the left-hander won the Australian Open in January 2022 after an exceptional final against Daniil Medvedev (2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6- 4, 7-5 in 5h24 of play). And generally speaking, the Spaniard has always been able to deal with the multiple physical glitches that have punctuated his career, playing regularly diminished. Even at 80, 50 or 40% of his full capacity, Rafael Nadal remains a formidable opponent. “I am convinced that Nadal's level will be good, fears Goran Invanisevic, coach Novak Djokovic, in an interview with Sportske. He wouldn't come back if he didn't feel ready, and I'm sure that at Roland Garros, he will be dangerous.

Does the Djokovic clan really fear a return to form from Rafael Nadal? Great rivals for more than two decades, the two men were until recently competing for the record number of Grand Slam titles. That was before the Serb took advantage of the Spaniard's convalescence to steal three, and move ahead at the top of the rankings. With his coronation at the US Open at the beginning of September, “Nole” now has 24 trophies, compared to 22 for “Rafa”.

Roger Federer and his 20 titles no longer haunt Novak Djokovic's nights since the Swiss retired at the end of September 2022. But Rafael Nadal is still alive. The Spaniard nevertheless seems resigned and wanted to temper the ardor of his fans: “I'm not going to win more Grand Slams than Novak Djokovic, but I'm going to give myself the opportunity to have fun again.” He recently said “that in terms of titles, Djokovic is the best in history and there is no room for discussion on that.”

Also read: Is Novak Djokovic the greatest tennis player of all time?

Perhaps the Mallorcan feels capable, based on a misunderstanding, of going for one or two major titles. But his abdication is rather the observation that at 36 years old, his great rival is still in full possession of his means. Apart from some elbow problems and unlike Nadal, Djokovic was spared from injuries. And his thirst for glory is inexhaustible.

Guest a few weeks ago on the show C à vous, the world number 1 spoke about his relationship with Nadal: “We can't say that we are friends but we have respect for each other. other. Personally, I hope that after our careers, we can go have a drink on the beach and talk about life with less stress and expectations.” The drink on the beach will wait. The two men still have a few racket shots to exchange.

Goran Invanisevic, Novak Djokovic's coach, is convinced: Rafael Nadal "will be even more dangerous this year, because no one has ever been as dominant as him at Roland Garros, and it is possible that in the year of Olympic Games, he is aiming for the double crown in Paris. The Olympic tennis tournament will indeed be played… at Roland-Garros.

At the time of his famous press conference in May 2023, the Spaniard affirmed that the Olympic Games are an “important” tournament for him and that he would like to participate in them. He won the gold medal in singles in 2008 in Beijing, and in doubles in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Since this declaration, the rumor of a doubles pair with Carlos Alcaraz has been growing.

“I have not had the slightest conversation with him (Alcaraz) in this sense. But I would also like, and it would be a good motivation, an encouragement for me, to close my Olympic cycle by playing with Carlos, with everything he is achieving, with the young people and with the great future that he in front of him,” the Majorcan confided to the daily AS in September. His worthy successor, in any case, loves the idea: “It’s in a year, both for him and for me, a lot can happen,” he said in May. But I hope we will both be at the Olympic Games. It would of course be a dream to be able to play doubles with Rafa at the Olympics next year.”

In the meantime, Rafael Nadal continues his recovery phase, step by step. Before even thinking about the titles, the Games and the Grand Slams, the simple fact of seeing the legend again on a tennis court will delight Spanish fans... And tennis fans.

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