Immediately after winning the Mubadala Tennis World Championship (MWTC) title on Saturday, Andrey Rublev scoffed at suggestions that the “Big Four” might not be so big and intimidating anymore.
“No, it’s a bit of an illusion because they know the real situation,” said the Russian world No.5 with a smile. âThey’re still the best, it doesn’t matter if they don’t play tennis for a year and their rankings have gone down, they know they are the best. So I don’t believe them.â
The âbestâ Rublev referred to are of course four of the giants of men’s tennis: multiple Grand Slam champions Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, and three-time major winner and two-time Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray.
Considering all of their accomplishments, Rublev made a fair point, and in Djokovic’s case the Serbian is still literally ‘first’ after a season in which he won three of the four majors and finished l year at the top of the standings for a record seventh season.
Still, the landscape is markedly different for the other three, two of whom were competing alongside Rublev in Abu Dhabi. While Federer is still far from a comeback – the 40-year-old Swiss admitted in November that he expects to be out at least until the middle of next year after a third knee surgery in 18 months – there was a tremendous amount of intrigue surrounding Nadal and Murray at MWTC.
Nadal, 35, regularly competed in the pre-season exhibition tournament to hone his game against top opponents ahead of a new season. With a record of five titles in the capital, it is a winning formula.
But this year, in his 11th appearance, he arrived “without great expectations” having not played a game since August due to a serious foot injury. Indeed, the foot was so bad, the Spaniard revealed in Abu Dhabi that he had played his last tournament of the season, at the Washington Open, in “very bad condition … it was a disaster” . This year it wasn’t so much about assessing his game as it was about his overall health.
Unsurprisingly and understandable, Nadal was rusty on his return to competition, suffering two losses in his two matches, but the aura that surrounds him and the fire that burns within him remains just as powerful as ever.
On Friday and Saturday, the 13-time Roland Garros champion won the lion’s share of support in a near-capacity International Tennis Center stadium, and despite his obvious lack of sharpness, he performed with his characteristic intensity. Even without a game for six months, Nadal still brought Canada’s world number 14 Denis Shapovalov to three sets in the playoffs for third place.
The question now is how far Nadal is from a return to tour. He made it clear that his goal was to make his way to the United States and compete in the Australian Open next month, but that he “can’t 100% guarantee … I will take it to the day. the day”.
As uncertainty surrounds his physical form, there can never be any doubt about his drive and commitment.
âI’m still playing after the career I’ve had because I still believe I’ll be competitive enough to give myself chances for the things I’ve competed in the past 15 years,â Nadal said. âI don’t play for money or for fun – I play to keep hitting goals and to use the process to try to reach my goals. If I don’t, that’s fine, but the motivation and the passion are still there. “
After beating Nadal in Friday’s semifinals, Murray sympathized with his longtime rival. “I know what it feels like,” said the 34-year-old Briton when asked what he thought of the Spaniard’s path to recovery.
Murray knows better than anyone after the hip injury that almost ended his career in early 2019. It was a long, trying and often frustrating journey for the former world No. 1, still ranked outside the top. 100, but there was reason to be optimistic at the end of last season and again at MWTC.
After entering the offseason after a series of back-to-back tournaments and a pair of top 10 wins, Murray returned to the Abu Dhabi pitch to record wins against world No.25 Dan Evans and Nadal, before a narrow loss to Rublev in the final.
âIt’s been a good week for me,â said Murray. âI played three games against completely different styles so it was positive. It was good to see where my body was, playing at that kind of intensity.
“I learned a lot in the three games. Certainly some things have improved over the week, and there are things to work on, but it was good.”
Update: December 19, 2021, 3:38 p.m.