Nadal returns in Barcelona -- can he reach top form for the French Open?

Rafael Nadal injured a hip at the 2023 Australian Open and hasn't been able to play consistently since then. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Barring any last-minute issues, Rafael Nadal will return to action Tuesday when he plays in the Barcelona Open. It will be his first clay-court event of the year, just his second tournament in the past 15 months -- and his eagerly anticipated comeback will be scrutinized for evidence of his physical state.

The road to this point has been far from easy. After injuring a hip flexor at the Australian Open in 2023, when he was the defending champion, Nadal had arthroscopic surgery last summer and missed the rest of the year. He returned in the ATP event in Brisbane, Australia, at the start of this year and looked good, winning two matches.

Statistically, according to Tennis Data Innovations and TennisViz, which monitor the ATP Tour, Nadal was playing top-10 level tennis there, only to subsequently pull out of the 2024 Australian Open, feeling more discomfort near his hip, albeit not the same injury as the year before.

Since then, Nadal has been battling an abdominal issue that he says was causing pain when serving. He played Carlos Alcaraz in the Netflix Slam in March, but pulled out of Indian Wells soon after. He had hoped to play in the Monte Carlo Masters last week, an event he has won 11 times, but had to withdraw there too, much to the disappointment of the tournament, which had been inundated with requests for media accreditation.

The good news is that after an intensive week of practice at the Real Club de Tenis in Barcelona, Nadal will play in this week's event there. It's a city and tournament close to his heart -- his uncle Miguel Angel Nadal played football for Barcelona and Nadal himself has won the title there a record 12 times. Using his protected ranking, Nadal didn't need a wild card to enter and he will play Italian Flavio Cobolli in the first round.

When Nadal withdrew from Roland Garros early last summer, the 22-time major winner said that 2024 is likely to be his last year on tour and he reiterated a desire to finish his career on his own terms. "I don't think I deserve to end like this," he said at the time.

Nadal turns 38 in June, a grand old age for any top tennis player, even if he's only a year older than Novak Djokovic, who is still the world No 1. He has won 92 titles worldwide, 22 of them Grand Slams, including a record 14 French Open crowns. He has amassed more than $134 million in prize money. He certainly doesn't need to play, financially. What's driving him on is getting back into good enough shape to be at Roland Garros next month for another crack at the title. The fact that the Olympics is being played at the same venue in late July is an added incentive.

But the cold truth of the matter is that it's unlikely to be easy. At such an age and given what his body has been through in the past year, not to mention a series of serious injuries over his entire career, Nadal faces an uphill battle in Paris.

When he was at his peak, dominating the clay-court season, Nadal liked to have a stack of matches under his belt, building momentum and confidence to the point where he arrived in Paris feeling almost unbeatable. This time, as he battles his body one more time, Nadal is playing catch-up.

And yet, if he survives Barcelona unscathed, Nadal will have time to find that confidence and belief. Back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome offer plenty of opportunity for match play, and as long as he is physically able, he will go into the French Open knowing that he can compete. What's more, his rivals know it too. "Of course, if Nadal is playing he's always a favorite there, No. 1, no doubt," Djokovic said in Australia this year. "Regardless of the fact that he hasn't played much, he is who he is in Roland Garros."

After winning the Monte Carlo Masters for the third time in four years Sunday, Stefanos Tsitsipas was asked what he expects from Nadal's comeback. "I would say that Rafa, regardless of whether he hasn't played at all or if that's his first tournament, we all know what Rafa is capable of and how quickly he can adjust to one of his favorite surfaces, which is a clay court," the Greek said. "I would not be surprised if we saw Rafa be in the finals of Barcelona, because that is something that he has done over and over again for years and years and years."

Tsitsipas' win in Monte Carlo reestablished him as a contender for Roland Garros, where Djokovic is the defending champion. With Jannik Sinner coming on strong to win his first Slam title at the Australian Open and two-time major champion Carlos Alcaraz, who is battling a niggling right arm injury, also chasing glory, Nadal will have his work cut out at Roland Garros. And the best-of-five format will be an additional test.

But this is Nadal we're talking about and it's worth mentioning that he beat Andrey Rublev, the No. 2 seed this week, 6-1 in a practice set in Barcelona. With Nadal, anything is possible.