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Nadal braces for Novak challenge

SYDNEY, Australia (AFP) — A “highly motivated” Rafael Nadal welcomed rival Novak Djokovic’s much-anticipated return to the Australian Open as “good for tennis” while brushing off suggestions this may be his last tilt at the season-opening Grand Slam.

The 36-year-old Spanish great, who recently became a father, is beginning his new season at the United Cup, a new mixed-teams event starting Thursday in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

It will provide a warm-up for his defense of the Australian Open title next month at Melbourne Park, where he swept past Russian Daniil Medvedev to win this year in an epic five-setter.

That victory came after archrival and nine-time Australian Open winner Novak Djokovic was detained and deported ahead of the tournament after refusing to get vaccinated for Covid-19.

Australia has since lifted its requirement for visitors to show proof of vaccination against Covid. The Serbian arrived back in the country on Tuesday for the first time since being turfed out.

Nadal, who has a record men’s 22 Grand Slam titles to Djokovic’s 21, said he was happy to see his superstar rival back.

“Novak is here, good for tennis, good for probably the fans,” the world No. 2 said in Sydney.

“Let’s see, no? Best players on court always win.”

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

Nadal backed up his Australian Open win this year with a 14th French Open but struggled with injury after withdrawing from the Wimbledon semifinal with an abdominal tear in July.

Despite a poor second half of the year, Nadal said he was raring to go again with a clash first up at the United Cup against British world No. 14 Cameron Norrie ahead of a blockbuster showdown with Australia’s Nick Kyrgios.

“The highest motivation to try to start well. It’s always important to start well for me, for the confidence,” he said.

“The last few months haven’t been easy for me. Main thing for me now is recover the positive feelings on court, being competitive. I hope to. I am 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 professional, you never know, hopefully not,” he said.

“I mean, when you are at the age of 36, you never know when it’s going to be the last one. It’s obvious, but I don’t like to talk about that because I am not in that mood now.”

“I’m just focused on trying to play at the highest level possible and give myself possibilities to keep being competitive, to fight for anything. That’s my goal now.”

“I’m not thinking about it being my last time here. I am happy doing what I am doing. I’m looking forward to keep doing this.”

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