Nadal gets through exhibition match with Alcaraz

Mark Anderson |

Rafa Nadal is set to return to the tour for the first time since January’s Brisbane International.
Rafa Nadal is set to return to the tour for the first time since January’s Brisbane International.

There has been plenty of mystery around Rafael Nadal and his health because he has played just 12 official matches since the 2022 US Open.

The 22-time Grand Slam winner played an exhibition event in Las Vegas on Sunday, losing to fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz 3-6 6-4 (14-12) in The Netflix Slam before a sellout crowd of 9489. 

The 37-year-old Nadal showed no apparent sign of any issues related to his hip, having withdrawn from the Australian Open in January after suffering what he called a micro tear on his surgically-repaired hip.

He later skipped a tournament in Doha. He hasn’t played a tour match since losing to Australia’s Jordan Thompson in the Brisbane International quarter-finals on January 5. 

Nadal said during a  courtside interview with Netflix while up 5-2 in the first set against Alacaraz that his performance at that point was “much better than expected.”

The question facing Nadal now is whether he will be ready for the French Open in May. Nadal has dominated that event like no other, winning the major 14 times. 

He gets another test at Indian Wells this week. It’ll be his first competitive tennis since Melbourne. He was in California preparing for that ATP hard-court event before traveling to Las Vegas to face Alcaraz.

“I need to spend more time on the tour, at least to practice with the professional players even if not playing many official matches,” Nadal said the day before the exhibition. 

“That’s the important thing right now, is to be in rhythm again. I was not able to play the way I expected. I had to pull out from Doha, so let’s see.”

Men’s tennis is seeing a sort of passing of the torch. Nadal’s longtime rival, Roger Federer, took his 20 Grand Slam titles into retirement two years ago. Nadal stayed on tour, but whether he adds to his Grand Slam total is a big question.

Novak Djokovic, who turns 37 in May, could be the only dominant player from that generation to still be near his peak. The world’s top-ranked player won three of his 24 career major titles last year.

But, there is a younger generation coming onto the scene. The 20-year-old Alcaraz already has two major championships. Jannik Sinner, 22, won his first grand slam title by taking the Australian Open, beating Djokovic in the semi-finals and former No.1 Daniil Medvedev in the final.

“I would say the game is in good hands and has been in great hands,” said eight-time major champion Andre Agassi, who was promoting the exhibition in his hometown.

 “We just watched and will continue to watch probably the greatest generation that certainly has ever played the game and arguably we’d be lucky if we ever see anything close again.”

How much game does Nadal have left?

He’s not even sure at this point as one of the greatest careers of all time gets closer to the end.

“It’s my body more than anything else because my mind is healthy,” Nadal said. “I have a passion for what I am doing.”