Nadal returns to singles play with win at Brisbane

BRISBANE, Australia — The longest time off tour in his professional career made Rafael Nadal much more nervous than usual ahead of his first competitive match in almost 12 months.

The 22-time major winner showed no signs of rust at the Brisbane International on Tuesday in a 7-5, 6-1 win over Dominic Thiem, who won the US Open in 2020 and has a career-high No. 3 ranking but is making a slow return from injury himself.

“Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me,” Nadal said. “And to play at the very positive level on the first day is something that probably makes [me] feel proud.

“It’s been the longest period of time without being in a professional tournament since I started my tennis career, so, yeah, it’s an amazing feeling to come back.”

Nadal hadn’t played a singles match at the elite level since last January and a hip injury in a second-round exit at the Australian Open. That time off didn’t seem to slow him.

Nadal, 37, made just a handful of unforced errors, lost just six points on his serve in the entire match and hit some stunning forehand winners.

He made the decisive break at 6-5 in the first set and dominated the latter stages of the match, winning eight of the last nine games.

Ranked No. 672 and playing on a wild card in Brisbane, Nadal said the last 12 months had been among the toughest of his professional career.

“You go on court and you have more nerves than usual because you [are] really at the end [of rehab and] hope that you’re going to play at this level, but inside yourself you know that [it] can be a disaster and that, of course, worried me.”

He was content with his low error rate, with his game management and with how his body felt after his initial foray back at the top level.

“I didn’t make a lot of bad decisions choosing the shots that I have to play, and that’s something difficult after such a long time,” he said. “Something that I’m happy with.”

Nadal will play Australian wild card Jason Kubler, who was one set apiece with Aslan Karatsev at 6-4, 6-7 (4) when the No. 8 seed retired injured.

Play on outside courts was interrupted by rain for a second consecutive day but went ahead in the covered Pat Rafter Arena. In the day’s first result, No. 51-ranked Yannick Hanfmann of Germany beat fifth-seeded Sebastian Korda 7-5, 6-4.

In the women’s draw, 2020 Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin was upset by No. 113-ranked Arina Rodionova 7-5, 7-6 (7) in the second round.

No. 14-seeded Kenin was constantly under pressure on her serve despite having chances in both sets against Rodionova, a 34-year-old Australian who has never been ranked in the top 100.

Victoria Azarenka, another former Brisbane International and Australian Open champion, was broken twice while serving for the match before finally converting on her fifth match point to beat Anna Kalinskaya 6-1, 7-6 (8).

“First matches are never easy to close out,” Azarenka said. “Definitely a few things to work on, but I’m pretty happy with a first win.”

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