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Nadal and Raducanu comebacks can shake up tennis in 2024

Osaka and Kerber are among the grand slam winners looking to disrupt the status quo of 2023 and reclaim their place at the top

Rafael Nadal has been here many times before. Throughout his 23 years as a professional tennis player, the 37-year-old’s career has been defined as much by incessant injuries as it has by his supreme success. Nearly every part of his body has betrayed him at some point, yet each time he fell, he found his way back to the top.

For Nadal and a group of prominent players, as a new year begins on the ATP and WTA tours, this is comeback season. Over the coming weeks, an unusual number of grand slam champions will return, hoping to shake up the competition and upend the order established in 2023.

Nadal suffered a hip injury and lost in the second round of the Australian Open in 2023. As the 14-time French Open champion was forced to withdraw from Paris, Nadal and his team came to the grim conclusion that 2024 was likely to be his final year.

Rafael Nadal has been practising for his long-awaited return in Brisbane.
Rafael Nadal has been practising for his long-awaited return in Brisbane.

His outlook, however, seems to have brightened as he has moved closer towards his return. Next week, after nearly a full year out, Nadal will return to competition at the Brisbane International. Nadal has said that he must approach his return with zero expectations, patience and acceptance of his limitations. Maybe, just maybe, he will find that there is some magic left in him.

As quickly as she emerged on the tour, winning the US Open as a qualifier in her second grand slam tournament, Emma Raducanu has had to endure a lengthy injury layoff that some players never experience. After struggling with her body throughout 2023, Raducanu finally opted for surgery to both hands and an ankle in April.

She had initially set a hopeful goal of returning last season before the reality of surgery recovery and setbacks struck. The scrutiny around the 21-year-old remains intense as she tries to follow up her US Open triumph and her increasingly long list of coaches continues to command attention.

Still, the fundamental question surrounding Raducanu is simply whether her body can withstand the physical strain of the tour. She will return in Auckland, but awaits word on a main draw wildcard for the Australian Open.

It has been three years since Naomi Osaka clinched her fourth major title at the Australian Open. As Osaka made winning grand slam tournaments look easy, alongside Ashleigh Barty, she seemed to have established herself as the premier player of the generation.

Instead Barty is nearly two years into retirement and a mother herself and Osaka, now 26, suffered through public struggles with her mental health and she continually considered an extended leave from the court.

Osaka instead took time away to give birth to her daughter, Shai. Her absence, she says, has imbued her with a new appreciation for the sport and her ambition is renewed. If she returns fully focused and sharp, there is no denying her destructive serve, her weight and cleanliness of shot, and the supreme mental strength that has underpinned her success.

Naomi Osaka (right) with her coach Wim Fissette (left), who helped guide her to two grand slams.
Naomi Osaka (right) with her coach Wim Fissette (left), who helped guide her to two grand slams.

Angelique Kerber, the three-time grand slam champion and former No 1, will also return from maternity leave at the United Cup. The mixed team competition returns for a second year in a streamlined form, with nations contesting best of three rubbers with two singles matches followed by mixed doubles.

The returning grand slam champions may look to hope to wreak havoc but the status quo is clear on both tours. Novak Djokovic, who will compete at the United Cup, remains the ATP’s dominant player as he continues to make his records even more difficult to beat.

While Carlos Alcaraz lost steam at the end of last season, he enjoyed a special year in his own right; he is still Djokovic’s toughest rival and the threat of him increasing his grand slam title tally is very real. Daniil Medvedev and Jannik Sinner, meanwhile, will look to compete for grand slam titles after both defeated the top two in 2023.

Iga Swiatek confirmed her supremacy by finishing the 2023 season as the WTA player of the year and year end No 1 while Aryna Sabalenka, excellent in the major tournaments, was crowned the ITF world champion. It will be fascinating to see if and how long Sabalenka can maintain the deeply impressive consistency and high standards she set last season, and if the pair’s budding rivalry can become a defining match-up on the tour.

Behind the top two, Elena Rybakina remains a constant threat to any opponent on any day and further challenges await Coco Gauff after winning her first grand slam at the US Open. The 19-year-old is still one of the youngest players in the Top 100 and as old faces return for more, she will now face the challenge of backing up her first great success and entrenching herself among the very best.

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