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Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a shot during his quarter-final match against Jordan Thompson of Australia in Brisbane. Image Credit: AP

Brisbane: Rafael Nadal chose to look on the bright side when it comes to the torn hip muscle that will keep him out of the Australian Open and extend his absence from tennis to more than a year.

At least, he told the world via social media on Sunday, this is not the same part of the hip that he hurt in Melbourne last January and that required surgery last June. At least, the 22-time Grand Slam champion explained, he still can point to his main goal for 2024, which remains to be fit and ready to compete in a serious way at the French Open on his beloved red clay.

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“This is not very bad news,” Nadal insisted while announcing he wasn’t going to be able to give his best at Melbourne Park, where he has collected two trophies and where the year’s first major tournament begins next Sunday, “and we all remain positive… for the season.”

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Spain's Rafael Nadal receives medical treatment in Brisbane. Image Credit: AFP

The questions

That might make his fans feel better about things. But there are still plenty of lingering questions about what this all means for his future in the sport. And several of those questions are the same as those that everyone was asking in 2023.

When will he be back? Will the 37-year-old actually be back at all? What version of Nadal will be on display when — if? — he returns to the tour? Will he be a title contender at Grand Slam tournaments ever again? Will he be fully healthy ever again? Will he get a chance to walk away from tennis on his own terms? Will his fans get a chance to say goodbye during some sort of farewell tournament or match?

Nadal famously shared tears with rival and friend Roger Federer when they paired up in doubles at the Laver Cup in 2022 in Federer’s final hurrah. Just like for most of 2023, Novak Djokovic — the other member of the so-called Big Three — will be the last one standing for the time being.

Optimistic message

“We will miss you in Melbourne, Rafa. Sending all our love and best wishes for a speedy recovery,” the Australian Open’s official social media account posted. “See you on the court soon.”

That last word might have been a tad optimistic. No one other than Nadal and his team really knows, of course.

That is a group that certainly has plenty of experience dealing with injuries and comebacks. This Australian Open will mark the fourth consecutive major tournament that Nadal has sat out since he got injured during a second-round loss in Melbourne in January 2023 — he hadn’t played at any level, anywhere, in nearly 12 full months until three matches at a tune-up event in Brisbane last week — and raises his career count of majors missed because of injury or illness to no fewer than 15.

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Rafael Nadal leaves after losing in the quarter-finals in Brisbane. Image Credit: AP

His most recent major triumph, at the 2022 French Open, came on a painful left foot that needed to be numbed with multiple injections. The one before that, at the 2022 Australian Open, came after missing time due to that foot. And so on.

There is one surface, clay, and one site, Roland Garros, that matter more than any others to the Spaniard and to his legacy. And it just so happens that the place where he won 14 of his Grand Slam trophies is also where the 2024 Olympics will be held.

Reach best level in three months

The French Open starts in May. The Summer Games begin in July.

“I always mentioned,” Nadal wrote on Sunday, “my goal is to be at my best level in 3 months.”

He is one of those all-time greats who finds it difficult to step on the field of play unless he believes he is ready to win and ready to pursue a title. That is not the case right now, because even though his shots carried their usual weight during the first two matches — and first two victories — of his comeback at the Brisbane International last week, the hip was too problematic during the nearly 3 1/2 hours across three sets during a loss to Jordan Thompson in the quarter-finals there.

If that was tough on him, he knew he couldn’t bring forth what he called his “maximum level” during a best-of-five-sets match at a major.

The world of tennis now will wonder: When might he again feel that is possible?