(Melbourne) Already injured just a week after his return, Rafael Nadal will not play at the Australian Open and his ability to return to the highest level, at 37, is called into question, even if he is intended to be reassuring.

The Spaniard withdrew on Sunday from the first Grand Slam of the season, which begins in a week in Melbourne, because of a “micro muscle tear” suffered two days earlier in Brisbane during his comeback tournament, his first for almost a year.

“I’m sad not to be able to play in front of the incredible crowd in Melbourne,” admitted of course “Rafa”, winner in Australia of two of his 22 Grand Slam titles, in 2009 and 2022. But to immediately add that this setback was “not very bad news” and that he and his team remained “all positive about how the season was going.”

We knew that his real objective was not to shine in Melbourne but “to be at [his] best level in three months”, that is to say for the season on clay, his favorite surface. But above all, his latest glitch is not a priori a relapse of the serious hip injury which kept him sidelined from the circuit for 347 days in 2023.

“Once I arrived in Melbourne, I was able to do an MRI and I have a micro muscle tear, but not in the area where I had a previous injury and that is good news,” he said. -he explained on his social networks.

“At the moment I am not ready to play five-set matches at the maximum level of demand. I’m going back to Spain to see my doctor, get treatment and rest,” he said.

It would therefore be just one of the countless physical problems, elbow, back, knees, abdominals, etc., which have disrupted his journey from the very beginning. Before the age of 20 he even wondered if he could have a career because of a congenital foot pain that never left him!

Friday in Brisbane, the Majorcan was beaten in the third round by the Australian Jordan Thomson (55th in the world) in a three-set match lasting almost three and a half hours which he finished with a sore left thigh.

Nothing to do, however, with his ordeal a year ago, when he dragged out his punishment until the end of a second round of the Australian Open, lost to the American McKenzie McDonald. It was his last match before two operations, big moments of doubt when he was going to think about retirement, then a long period of work on his island in Majorca before the announcement, at the beginning of December, of his return.

Having fallen to 672nd rank in the ATP, Nadal said then that he set no other goal than “to be competitive”, admitting to having “no idea” of what awaited him.

These rivals know well that such a champion “does not come back only to play”, as Novak Djokovic immediately pointed out, but to try to win a 15th French Open in June, if not to catch up with the Serb who in his absence joined and then surpassed him in the number of Grand Slam victories (24).

His mini-tour to the Antipodes will have told him nothing about the validity of his ambitions. He won his first singles against a big name, Dominic Thiem, but the Austrian is only a shadow of the player he was when he reached the final of Roland-Garros twice, against Nadal of course. Then he swept aside a modest Australian, Jason Kubler (102nd in the world), before stopping in the quarter.

Too little to be certain, but enough not to give up.