Rio 2016: Rafael Nadal’s golden comeback spells trouble for his rivals

The Olympic tennis tournament witnessed plenty of shocks, and the welcome return to form of one of the sport’s best loved players, as Will Jones reports 

The men’s tennis singles at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games had more than its fair share of surprises. Of the world’s top four, only eventual champion Andy Murray got beyond the first round: neither Roger Federer nor Stan Wawrinka were fit enough to travel to the Games, while world no. 1 Novak Djokovic suffered a tearful first-round exit to unseeded Argentine player Juan Martín del Potro.

The tournament also saw the welcome return of one of the world’s best players. Teaming up with Marc López, a doubles specialist who won his first Grand Slam this year at the age of 33, Rafael Nadal picked up the gold medal for Spain in the men’s doubles – and his impassioned reaction showed just how much the title meant to him.

Fatigue surely played a part in his failure to match that achievement in the singles – in the following day’s semi-finals, Del Potro beat the Spaniard in a third-set tie-break – but his generally excellent form in Rio bodes well.

Olympic spotlight: Tennis shocks and surprises

Rio 2016: Tennis shocks and surprises

It’s been a testing few years for Nadal. Although he has 14 Grand Slam singles titles in his locker, only of those championships has come in the last three seasons. The Spaniard – a former winner of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships – has struggled with fitness and the near-invincibility of Djokovic and Murray, leading some observers to wonder whether his days at the top of the sport might be numbered.

This year has been particularly tough on the Spaniard, who crashed out of the Australian Open in the first round and then failed to reach the final in any of his next four tournaments. The arrival of the clay-court season seemed to bolster Nadal’s confidence, as he reeled off consecutive tournament wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. But it didn’t last. After losing to Murray in Madrid and Djokovic in Rome, Nadal then withdrew from the French Open with a wrist injury after the second round. The injury kept him out for more than two months, forcing him to miss Wimbledon for just the second time in 12 years.

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Nadal returned to action in Rio sooner than many were anticipating, and his performance exceeded even his own expectations. “To win a gold medal after two and a half months with no practice, no preparation at all, just working at the gym: it’s a dream,” he said after his doubles final. “The wrist is not perfect: it bothers me when I hit the forehand.”

The injury means that Nadal won’t be one of the favourites for the final Grand Slam of the season, the US Open, but after his performance in Rio, few would bet against one of the sport’s best-loved players upsetting the odds.