Rafael Nadal said it felt “special” to be back on court as the 20-time grand slam champion began his latest comeback with defeat to old foe Andy Murray in Abu Dhabi.
The Spaniard was beaten 6-3, 7-5 by Murray at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, an exhibition event that for the 35-year-old marks an important step towards a full ATP tour return.
Nadal is coming off a year disrupted by the foot injury that caused him to miss Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open, playing just one event after June.
With the Australian Open a month away, there is plenty of work for these two still to do, but this was a feast for the eyes as the multiple grand slam champions jostled hard for supremacy.
Murray is down at 134th in the ATP rankings and continues to battle his own body after hip and groin problems. However, eye-catching wins late in the season against the likes of Carlos Alcaraz, Hubert Hurkacz, Jannik Sinner and Frances Tiafoe have suggested there might be good times ahead for him in the new year.
Here the Scot broke Nadal‘s serve to 15 in the sixth game of the first set to seize the initiative. Nadal appeared to be finding a familiar rhythm in the second set, hitting some tremendous clean winners, and at 0-30 down at 4-4 he serve-volleyed twice in succession to get out of trouble.
A contentious line call gave Murray two break points at 5-5, and although Nadal saved one, he fired long at the end of a super rally on the next point. Murray closed out the contest on his second match point, with Nadal flinging a full-throttle backhand long.
“It’s been special to be back in competition,” Nadal said in an on-court interview. “At the same time, it’s been a while since we played against each other. I’m super happy to see Andy playing at this great level after all the things he went through.
“For me, as a comeback it was not a bad match for me. It’s been a long time since I was out on court in a professional match so I’ve got positive feelings.”
These wily old rivals had met 24 times previously at competitive tour level, all of those encounters coming between 2007 and 2016 with Nadal leading 17-7 in the head-to-head.
Nadal won the ATP’s comeback player of the year award way back in 2013, and he finds himself looking to prove himself again in 2022, locked together on 20 slams with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Murray, who has won three slams but also been a runner-up eight times in the majors, said: “It’s great to be back on the court, able to play at a high level again after a very long time. Me and Rafa have played so many tough matches, but we’ve not played for five or six years.
“That shows both of us have gone through lots of injury troubles and issues, and it’s great to just have the opportunity to be on the court with him again.
“Certainly when I was younger I wasn’t appreciating it as much as I do now. It’s great to be back on the court, I’m so happy that Rafa’s back, and I look forward to the next few years.”
Murray will play Andrey Rublev for the title on Saturday, while Nadal features again too, taking on Denis Shapovalov in a third-place match.