RIO DE JANEIRO: World number one Rafael Nadal will top the bill at next week’s inaugural Rio Open as he returns from the back injury that wrecked his Australian Open title assault.
The Spanish star, denied a 14th Grand Slam title in Melbourne by Stanislas Wawrinka, will be the biggest draw for what is South America’s only combined ATP World Tour 500 and WTA International event.
The event replaces Memphis in the tennis calendar.
For Nadal, forced to skip Buenos Aires last week as he returns to full fitness, the tournament is an early stepping stone in a claycourt season he hopes will culminate in a ninth French Open crown.
Fellow-Spaniard David Ferrer will be Nadal’s main rival as the latter returns to Brazil having captured the Sao Paulo titles last year.
The $1.5 million event at Rio’s Jockey Club Brasileiro will have two stars from the past on hand in triple Wimbledon and quadruple US Open champion Maria Bueno, as well as three-time French open winner Gustavo Kuerten.
The pair, the biggest names in Brazilian tennis history, are both scheduled to make a show of backing South America’s biggest tennis event.
Nadal said on Friday he is hoping to leave his back problems behind him as he tunes up for another successful clay swing this season.
“I hope it will stand up well. I wasn’t able to play Buenos Aires and feel bad about that but luckily here I am in Rio, which is a new city for me.
“I hope I shall be able to compete well,” he told reporters.
“I trained at home for a few days and now we’ll see how it goes at the top level.”
He also said he hopes to use the event, featuring five top 20 players, as a reconnaissance mission for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“There are still two-and-a-half years to go but I’d like to play, especially having missed out on the London Games. I’d love to come to the Rio Games,” said 2008 Beijing Olympics champion Nadal.
Joining Nadal and Ferrer, who ended the year ranked third on the ATP computer, will be a clutch of other experienced Spanish claycourters, including Tommy Robredo, Nicolas Almagro and Marcel Granollers.
Leading the women’s challenge will be 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy and Czech Klara Zakopalova, both ranked in the top 50.