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Rafael Nadal ready to challenge Djokovic at Australian Open


Rafael Nadal (ESP) reacts with a point against Borna Coric (CRO) during the Western & Southern Open at the Lindner Family Tennis Center.

FILE–Rafael Nadal of Spain. Susan Mullane-USA Sports TODAY

A “highly motivated” Rafael Nadal who greeted rival Novak Djokovic’s much-anticipated return at the Australian Open was “good for tennis” on Wednesday, while dismissing the comments. ​that this could be his last tilt at the opening Grand Slam of the season.

The 36-year-old Spanish great, who just became a dad, is kicking off his new season at the United Cup, a new mixed-teams event that kicks off Thursday in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

It will be the warm-up for him to defend his Australian Open title next month at Melbourne Park, where he overcame Russian Daniil Medvedev to win this year in an epic five-setter game.

That victory came after arch-rival and nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic was detained and deported before the tournament after refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Since then, Australia has lifted the requirement for travelers to present proof of Covid vaccination. The Serb is back in the country on Tuesday for the first time since disqualification.

Nadal, who has a record 22 men’s Grand Slam titles to Djokovic’s No. 21, said he was happy to see his superstar rival back.

“Novak is here, good for tennis, probably good for the fans,” the world number two said in Sydney. “Let’s see, right? The best players on the pitch always win.”

Fifth-ranked Djokovic will begin his quest for an incredible 10th title in Melbourne Park at the Adelaide International from Sunday.

Nadal assisted this year’s Australian Open with a 14th French Open title but struggled with injury after withdrawing from Wimbledon semi-finals with an abdominal laceration in July.

Despite a bad second half of the year, Nadal said he is eager to return to his first United Cup clash with British world number 14 Cameron Norrie ahead of a blockbuster match with Australia’s Nick Kyrgios.

“The ultimate motivation to try to start well. A good start has always been important to me, because of confidence,” he said.

“The past few months have not been easy for me. The most important thing for me right now is getting back to feeling positive on the pitch, being competitive. I hope will. I’m ready to make that happen, but let’s see.”

Nadal played his first Australian Open in 2004. He is now a father and with a history of injuries he was asked if this could be his last trip to Australia.

“As a pro, you never know, hopefully not,” he said.

“I mean, when you’re 36, you never know when it’s going to be the last time. It’s obvious, but I don’t like talking about it because I’m not in the mood right now.

“I’m just focused on trying to compete at the highest level I can and giving myself the ability to keep competing, fighting for anything. That is my goal now.

“I don’t think this will be my last time here. I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I look forward to continuing to do this.”

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