Rafael Nadal
Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates winning his men's singles match against Austria's Dominic Thiem AFP / William WEST

Rafael Nadal has thrilled the crowd at the Brisbane International in Australia after he treated them to a sensational return after a year-long hiatus. The Spaniard was emotional after winning his first competitive singles match in the event against Austrian star Dominic Thiem, 7-5, 6-1.

The 22-time Grand Slam champion took the longest break of his career throughout 2023, and made a tentative return to competition in Brisbane. He lost his doubles match while paired with coach Marc Lopez, but it was clear that they considered that as a warm-up.

On Tuesday, he was thrust straight into the fire for his first round match against Thiem, who won the 2020 US Open. In other words, Nadal faced a formidable opponent from the get-go. Thiem, who has a career-high ranking of world no.3, is of course returning from injury himself, making it an almost even playground for the two players.

Nadal makes emotional return to competitive tennis

It has been almost 12 months since Nadal last played a singles match when he lost in the second round of the 2023 Australian Open after being visibly hampered by a hip injury. That same issue forced him to pull out of subsequent events before he and his team decided that surgery is needed to rectify the situation.

He announced that he would skip the French Open and revealed that he would miss the rest of the season due to the long recovery period required after surgery. He has since dropped down to No. 672 in the rankings, and has been given a wild card to play in Brisbane. He admitted back in June that he intends to come back in 2024 in what could very well be his farewell tour, but he is sounding more upbeat now that he has finally gotten back into the thick of things.

Upon his arrival in Brisbane, Nadal has been the darling of the crowd. He received a warm reception anywhere he turned, and he admitted that "it's an amazing feeling to come back".

Speaking about his victory over Thiem, Nadal said: "Today is honestly an emotional and important day for me. And to play at the very positive level on the first day is something that probably makes [me] feel proud."

Indeed, the 37-year-old seemed to have shaken off the rust. He lost just six points on the serve and made only a handful of unforced errors. Fans were also treated to the familiar sight of his spectacular forehand winners.

He admitted that he was nervous going into the match knowing that something could go wrong at any point and that could lead to long-term disaster. "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."

In the end, Nadal expressed his satisfaction over how well he played and his decision-making abilities on court, which have remained sharp.

Soon after the match was over, Nadal could not contain his emotions as he took to Instagram to share a message directly to his fans. He posted some photos from the match against Thiem and said: "Very emotional day for me. Now back at the hotel I can share with you some pictures of today's match. As you all know it wasn't just another match... I am very happy to have had the chance to feel the competition.

"There's been a lot of effort and work to come back. Anything could have happened in a day like today after such a long time without playing a professional tennis match. I am happy with the way it all went," he said.

Despite his joy, Nadal admitted that he has only taken the first step and there is a long road ahead. He said that he is grateful that he has remained healthy throughout his first competitive singles match, but his words made it clear that he is very aware of the possibility of experiencing an injury setback at any time.

However, he added that his main goal is to enjoy his comeback. This supports what he previously stated that the expectations this time around are different. His priority is to remain healthy and be able to compete in as many tournaments as possible in order to be able to call time on his career under his own terms. He even hinted that if he feels good, he may play beyond 2024.

In the second round in Brisbane, Nadal will play Australian wild card Jason Kubler. He will be hoping to win and play more matches in order to be more prepared for the upcoming Australian Open later this month.