Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal has suffered a series of injuries over his long career GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA via AFP / AL BELLO

Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal has finally made his highly-anticipated return to competitive action at the Brisbane International tournament after a full year on the sidelines. He lost the doubles match on his first outing back on tour, but he admitted that he remains very optimistic about his chances of playing even beyond 2024.

One would not think that Nadal and his doubles partner, Marc Lopez, had lost the match by the way they were smiling at the end of the match on Sunday. They were beaten in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4 by the Australian pair of Max Purcell and Jordan Thompson.

Despite the loss, the 22-time Grand Slam champion is simply happy to be back after undergoing an arthroscopic surgery for a left hip flexor injury last year. It may be remembered that he has not been playing since January 2023, when he lost in the second round of the Australian Open to Mackenzie McDonald. During that match, he had called for a medical time-out and it was clear that his left hip was bothering him.

He later missed the rest of the season after it became clear that the injury could not be resolved without surgery. Nadal underwent hip surgery in June, which put him out of action for the entire 2023 season. At one point, he told fans that he is disappointed at the pace of his progress and that he may return in 2024 only to do a farewell tour.

However, since arriving in Brisbane to prepare for this year's Australian Open, Nadal has been more optimistic and has even hinted that he may choose to play beyond 2024. Of course, that will depend almost entirely on whether or not he can stay fit this year.

"If I am playing well - something that can happen - if I am free of injuries - something that history says is very difficult - and if I am not having too much pain on a daily basis, if all the things together happen, why not?" Nadal said.

He gave fans hope that he may be around much longer thanks to his desire to continue doing what he loves. This will come as a relief for fans who were disappointed when he said that 2024 will likely be his final year on tour. "I don't want to say 100% that's going to be my last year, because I keep loving tennis and keep enjoying what I am doing," he said.

Nadal dipped his toes into the competition in Brisbane alongside Lopez, who is a part of his coaching team. Lopez rarely competes these days, which is a clear indication that they fully intended to ease into the competition by using the doubles match to practice.

Nadal will be facing a tougher challenge in his upcoming singles match against Dominic Thiem on Tuesday. The Austrian is entering the competition as a qualifier, but everyone knows his quality as a player. The 2020 US Open Champion will be a formidable opponent for Nadal, even though he only has a 6-9 head-to-head record against the Spaniard. Despite this, it was Thiem who came out on top in their most recent enounters.

Nadal will need to work hard to try to get deeper into the tournament in Brisbane, which also serves as his "practice" tournament before heading to Melbourne for the first Grand Slam of the year. It will be a bittersweet return to action at the Australian Open, considering the fact that he last played at Melbourne Park before going out on a year-long break.

The 2022 Australian Open champion will hope to be able to at least have fun and give his fans a great time, especially since there is always the possibility that it may be his last appearance at the event. Nadal admitted that he is coming in with a different mindset. He used to come into every tournament hoping to win, but now he won't be pushing himself as much. "Of course I don't have the expectations that I used to have in the past," he said.

Nadal will likely take it easy to ensure that he will be able to play at the French Open. He would want to give the fans at Ronald Garros a proper farewell, and it may come this year if he does not feel like his body is still willing to take him through another competitive year.