Forums Dancehall Reggae Rafael Nadal struggles at times in Aussie opener but prevails in 4 sets

Posted January 16, 2023 07:09 AM

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Rafael Nadal never truly seemed in danger of becoming the first Australian Open defending men's champion to lose in the first round since his current coach, Carlos Moya, managed to beat Boris Becker a quarter of a century ago.

Still, this was not a vintage performance by Nadal, who came into Monday's matchup against 21-year-old Jack Draper with an 0-2 record in 2023 and six losses in his past seven outings overall. After nearly two hours of so-so play, Nadal found himself even at a set apiece.

He appeared to be pulling away, taking advantage of his opponent's bout with cramps on an afternoon with the temperature at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, when suddenly Draper went up by a break in the fourth set. From there, though, Nadal would not drop another game, beginning his pursuit of a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam championship with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory that took more than 3½ hours in Rod Laver Arena.

Nadal was not in peak form. All in all, it was a bit of a struggle. He tried to put a silver-lining spin on things, nonetheless.

"If we put in perspective all the situation that I went through the last six months,'' the 36-year-old from Spain said, "I think it was a very positive start.''

Both men are left-handers, but that is pretty much where the similarities end, whether in terms of style or age or experience or accomplishments.

Nadal, who is seeded No. 1 because top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz is sidelined with an injury, is appearing in his 67th Grand Slam tournament. Draper, ranked a career-best No. 38 this week, was making his fourth trip to a major and his best showing was getting to the third round at the US Open last September.

Draper also has shown problems dealing with steamy conditions: In his ATP Tour debut at the Miami Open in March 2021, he collapsed on court and needed to stop playing after one set.

This time, signs of trouble showed up early, and Draper was treated by a trainer during changeovers. Later, he massaged his right thigh between points.

Nadal, not surprisingly, wore Draper down from the baseline, engaging in exchanges before finding an opening to yank a big forehand this way or that.

"Last year has been, without a doubt, one of the most emotional tournaments of my tennis career. No doubt about that,'' said Nadal, who came back from a two-set deficit against Daniil Medvedev in the final to win the trophy. "But unfortunately, that (is in the past), so we need to keep working.''

His next opponent will be Mackie McDonald, a past NCAA champion at UCLA who won an all-American matchup against Brandon Nakashima that lasted 4 hours by a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 1-6, 6-7 (10), 6-4 score.

In other results from Monday, American Frances Tiafoe, seeded 16th, defeated Germany's Daniel Altmaier 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6) to reach the Australian Open second round for the fifth time in his career.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Rafael Nadal overcomes error-strewn performances and cramping Jack Draper at Australian Open

Defending champion Rafael Nadal was far from his best as he produced an error-laden performance during his opening-round victory over Jack Draper at the Australian Open.

The draw had handed 21-year-old rising British star Draper a blockbuster clash with his childhood idol on his debut at Melbourne Park, and an opportunity to really break through onto the world stage given Nadal’s poor form.

A run of six defeats from seven matches heading into the year’s first Grand Slam was the worst of his career and a tally of 45 unforced errors showed that this was far from vintage Nadal.

Draper looked capable of causing the upset when he took the second set on Rod Laver Arena but physical struggles have hampered his career so far and he began to cramp in the third set before hobbling through the final stages of a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 defeat.

Draper copied Nadal’s look as a child but also modelled his game around his hero, including playing left-handed even though he is naturally right-handed.

Draper’s former coach Justin Sherring told the Daily Telegraph: “We used to base a lot of our game development around Rafa. The things we tried to emulate were not just the lefty style but also the technique, hunger and fighting spirit.”

The influence is clear in Draper’s heavy topspin forehand and solid backhand hit predominantly cross-court but occasionally, and explosively, down the line.

He settled well into the contest, facing only one break point before a poorly executed drop shot enabled Nadal to claim the opening set.

The top seed pumped his fists in celebration, an indication that it was a big moment for him as he tries to play himself back into form, but he went completely off the boil at the start of the second set.

Mistakes flowed from the Nadal racket and Draper, who might even have taken the set 6-0, did not need to do anything spectacular to level the contest amid a couple of very brief rain delays.

Nadal admitted ahead of the tournament that a lack of wins had left him feeling more vulnerable than usual but he spoke confidently about his form in practice and belief that it would translate to the match court.

The defending champion had an animated exchange with his team sat courtside ahead of the third set and there was greater assertiveness about his game thereafter.

He was helped by Draper beginning to flag physically, his serve and shots noticeably lacking the same pop.

A wayward double fault from the British player handed Nadal a break for 3-1 but the 22-time grand slam champion was still producing plenty of uncharacteristic errors and he gave the advantage back with a terrible game at 4-2.

Draper was unable to keep the pressure on, though, saving one set point with an ace in the 10th game but pushing a backhand just wide on the second.

He took a long break to change his outfit and offered hope of a comeback with a break of the Nadal serve in the opening game of the fourth set but the Spaniard was at last playing a little better and he hit straight back.

During a long point in the fourth game, Draper began to cramp again, and he was completely hamstrung during the formalities of the final few games.

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Rafael Nadal victorious at Australian Open but heartbreak for Nick Kyrgios

Rafael Nadal launched his Australian Open title defense with a four-set victory over Britain’s Jack Draper as home hope Nick Kyrgios exited through injury without hitting a ball.

In the women’s draw, in-form Jessica Pegula and teenage prodigy Coco Gauff were both emphatic winners on the first day of the opening Grand Slam of the year.

Spanish great Nadal, 36, had been in poor form by his sky-high standards, losing six of his last seven matches stretching back to defeat in the last 16 at the U.S. Open.

In fast-rising Draper, 21, the 22-time Grand Slam champion faced a tough test to start his campaign at a sweltering Melbourne Park.

But top seed Nadal recovered from a second-set wobble to defeat the 38th-ranked Briton 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 at Rod Laver Arena.

Nadal, who is now a father, faces American Mackenzie McDonald in round two.

“Very exciting, new beginning, just super-happy to be back at Rod Laver with a victory I needed,” he said after seeing off Draper.

“Last couple of months have not been easy for me … a very positive start.”

Nadal was on court when Australia’s talented but temperamental Kyrgios called a hastily arranged press conference and announced that he was out with a knee injury.

“I’m devastated, obviously,” said the Wimbledon finalist, who was considered an outside bet to win a maiden Grand Slam crown.

“I’ve had some great tournaments here, winning the doubles last year and playing the tennis of my life probably going into this event.

“I’m just exhausted from everything, and (it’s) obviously pretty brutal.”

The Australian Open had already lost several stars in the build-up.

Injured men’s world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz and two-time Melbourne champion Naomi Osaka — who is expecting her first child — are among the other high-profile players missing.

Nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, who was detained and deported ahead of last year’s tournament after refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19, begins his title assault on Tuesday.

Other winners in the men’s draw on Monday included teenager Shang Juncheng.

The 17-year-old, the youngest player in the men’s draw, created a slice of history by becoming the first men’s Chinese player to win an Australian Open main-draw singles match.

The teenager battled past Germany’s Oscar Otte in nearly three hours and four sets to progress.

He faces American 16th seed Frances Tiafoe next.

Other winners included 18th seed Karen Khachanov, 10th seed Hubert Hurkacz and Italian 15th seed Jannik Sinner. But 21st seed Borna Coric fell to Czech player Jiri Lehecka in straight sets.

In the women’s draw, Pegula blitzed 161st-ranked Romanian Jaqueline Cristian on Margaret Court Arena 6-0, 6-1 in a 59-minute romp to signal her intent.

Fellow American Gauff was equally explosive in racing into the second round with a 6-1, 6-4 thumping of Czech Katerina Siniakova on the neighboring Rod Laver Arena.

Gauff headed into Melbourne on a high after winning her third WTA title at the Auckland Classic, while Pegula was boosted by upsetting world No. 1 Iga Swiatek at the United Cup.

The 18-year-old Gauff now faces a mouth-watering encounter against former U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu, who beat Tamara Korpatsch 6-3, 6-2, barely 10 days after the Briton exited the Auckland event in tears with an ankle injury.

It will be a first meeting ever between Gauff and the 20-year-old Raducanu, two rising stars of women’s tennis.

“I’m really looking forward to this match,” Raducanu said.

“I’m very up for it. Coco has obviously done a lot of great things and she’s playing well.

“I think we’re both good, young players, we’re both coming through — part of the next generation of tennis really — it’s going to be a great match.”

Also safely through was another American, Danielle Collins, last year’s beaten finalist in Melbourne. She beat Anna Kalinskaya 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.

Greek sixth seed Maria Sakkari also won.

But two seeds fell at the first hurdle, 25th-seeded Czech Marie Bouzkova and American 28th-seed Amanda Anisimova.

Top seed Swiatek gets her campaign for a first Melbourne Park title under way later Monday against Germany’s Jule Niemeier.

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