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RAFA Nadal and DOMINIC Thiem Return for Abu Dhabi Exhibition, joined by Sir Andy Murray, Rublev, Shapovalov, and Ruud

Rafael Nadal returns to action in Abu Dhabi this week. EPA-EFE/Alejandro Garcia.

By Ricky Dimon

If it feels like the tennis offseason (is there such a thing?!?!) just started, well…it did. But a whole host of players have already begun gearing up for the 2022 campaign. Among them are six ATP stars and two top WTA players who will be in Abu Dhabi this week for the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.

Rafael Nadal, Andrey Rublev, Dominic Thiem, Andy Murray, Denis Shapovalov, and Casper Ruud make up this year’s field in Abu Dhabi. Nadal is playing for the first time since a recurring foot issue ended his season following the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. Thiem sustained a wrist injury during the grass-court swing prior to Wimbledon and missed the rest of the 2021 campaign. There had been fears that the 15th-ranked Austrian would be sidelined into 2022, but surgery was not necessary and he appears to be ready to go.

“My idea is to be in Abu Dhabi and play there on the 17th and 18th, and that’s still my plan,” Nadal said a couple of weeks ago. “However, things are being analyzed week by week, as always. (I’m) keeping in my mind that I want to return as early as possible, but above all I want to return being in good shape.

“You don’t know until you increase the load and test yourself at the highest level. For now I’m doing….what I’ve been told. I’m usually quite obedient and what I’m told to do is what I do. I’m currently in that process. Things are better than before, otherwise I would not consider going to Abu Dhabi. But I don’t know what will happen in the future. Abu Dhabi is a test for me and I’m motivated to be there.”

Dominic Thiem returns to play Abu Dhabi. EPA-EFE/CHEMA MOYA

Nadal and Rublev have byes to the semifinals as the top two seeds. Thursday’s quarterfinals pit Thiem against Murray and Ruud against Shapovalov, with the Thiem-Murray winner to meet Nadal and the Ruud-Shapovalov winner to face Rublev.

U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu and Tokyo Olympics singles gold medalist Belinda Bencic will cap off Thursday’s schedule with an exhibition match.

There is also a third-place tilt on Saturday in addition to the championship, so both Rublev and Nadal are guaranteed two matches in Abu Dhabi even though they have byes.

Nadal is the all-time leader with five Mubadala World Tennis Championship titles, most recently in 2019 before the 2020 tournament was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Murray won the inaugural event in 2009 (beat Nadal in the final) and lifted the trophy for a second time in 2015 after getting a walkover from Novak Djokovic in the final. In each of Rublev’s two previous appearances he lost in the quarterfinals and then won the fifth-place contest.

Ricky contributes to10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.