Rafael Nadal has downplayed expectations ahead of the start of the new season and insisted his priority is to "be healthy", as the Spanish tennis great makes his return to the court at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) following a long-term foot injury.
Rafael Nadal called time on his 2021 season in August due to the foot problem, which he admitted had been troubling him for more than a year. It was the latest in a litany of injury issues that have disrupted his extraordinary career. And after a spell of rehabilitation, the 20-time Grand Slam champion has spent the subsequent months "training well".
Nadal makes his highly-anticipated return on Friday when he competes in the second MWTC semi-final. It will be the Spaniard's 11th appearance at the pre-season exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, which he has won a record five times, including its most recent edition in 2019.
"I’m feeling good, super happy to be back," Nadal said. "As you know, [MWTC] is a tournament I’ve played plenty of times in my career, a lot of positive memories. For me, it’s a comeback to competition after a long period of time, so very happy for that."
While in past years, Nadal would arrive in the capital to fine-tune before the start of the season in Australia, this year the focus is very much on testing his body, more pertinently his foot, in match conditions.
"Pain I had a lot of times in my career, almost all the time. It’s more about having the chance to have a pain that I can manage to compete well," he said. "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 not be easy. I don’t have big expectations now, but the early expectation is to be here, to play in front of a great crowd again, to be competing again against great players, and then enjoy.
"It has been a very tough period of time for me, so just to be here is great news. I really hope that the foot is going to get better and better, so I can get to the level I want to be."
With the Australian Open exactly one month away, Nadal admits he still has plenty of work to do to be ready for the first major of the season.
After MWTC, Nadal will return to Spain to celebrate Christmas with family and friends and continue his pre-season training before making his way Down Under, where he is scheduled to play one warm-up event in the lead-up to the Australian Open.
In terms of his expectations for Melbourne Park, Nadal is preparing for all possibilities, and while he cannot predict how his body will respond in the next few weeks, his commitment levels and drive remain as high as ever.
"You never know, honestly. My experience says things can change very quickly," he said. "What today seems impossible or almost impossible, nobody knows what can happen in one month, so the only thing I want to do is fight to be ready for this situation; to feel healthy, to play a tournament before Australia and be there for 20 days before the tournament to keep practicing.
"I have been doing a great job at home, training well with the right intensity, working a lot on my fitness. So if I am able to do all these kinds of things, and if my foot allows me, you never know what can happen.
"But today? My expectations are just to try to be healthy enough in Australia and to play the tournament with positive feelings. I know it’s going to be super difficult for me, I’m only going to play one tournament before in Australia and two matches here.
"But the main thing is always the same: to be healthy. If I am healthy, I still have the fire to keep going and to fight for my goals."