Back on the court where he became the man with the most Grand Slams in history, Spaniard Rafa Nadal began his Australian Open title defense with a hard-fought victory, where world number one Iga Swiatek also struggled.
On the opening day of the first Grand Slam of the year, which lost to local idol Nick Kyrgios, Nadal managed to quell the rebellion of young Briton Jack Draper (7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1) and reverse his losing streak of six defeats in the last seven matches.
“I needed the win, that’s the main thing. It doesn’t matter the way. The most important thing is the victory against a tough opponent (…) one of the toughest in the first round as a top seed,” he reflected later in a press conference.
With a powerful first serve and ability to respond to Nadal’s long rallies, the 21-year-old Briton showed at the Rod Laver Arena the reasons that led him to climb 200 places in the ATP rankings in one year to number 38.
The first set was not unbalanced until the last game, in which Nadal took hard drives and took advantage of two overlong drops of his rival to break serve and win the first set.
But in the resumption, Draper was not intimidated and endorsed a double break to the Spaniard. “Those are the games that change the match. I need to keep improving on that,” Nadal admitted.
The balance was maintained until midway through the third set, when Draper noticed discomfort in his right thigh, which weighed down his performance and forced him to seek medical assistance.
With a limping rival, who in the end could barely run and showed obvious signs of pain, Nadal closed the pass to the second round where he will face the American Mackenzie McDonald.
Returned Novak Djokovic to Australia after his deportation in 2022 for not being vaccinated against covid-19, Nadal is not only playing for the title, but the record of 22 Grand Slams, which the Serb can match if he wins for the tenth time in Melbourne.
First round “tricky” for Swiatek –
Right after Nadal, women’s world number one Iga Swiatek took to center court to face a tough first round test against Germany’s Jule Niemeier, who had already made her suffer in the last 16 of the last U.S. Open.
In search of her fourth Grand Slam, Swiatek won the match in nearly two hours 6-4, 7-5 after having to come back from a break down in the second set.
“I’m pretty happy that I got through this match because the first round is always tough and I guess an opponent like Jule makes it even tougher,” she said.
Her opponents came through more comfortably.
The Americans Jessica Pegula (3rd) and Coco Gauff (7th) solved with authority their respective clashes against the Romanian Jaqueline Cristian (6-0, 6-1) and the Czech Katerina Siniakova (6-1, 6-4), while the Greek Sakkari (6th) overcame the Chinese Yuan Yue by 6-1, 6-4.
In a duel between the only two Open champions in contention, Belarus’ Victori Azarenka outlasted American Sofia Kenin 6-4, 7-6 (7/3).
In the men’s draw, the main surprise came from off-court, with the announcement of the withdrawal of the talented Kyrgios who, after years of controversy and inconsistent performance, looked ready to challenge for a Grand Slam.
“I’m devastated,” said Kyrgios, the defending doubles champion in Australia and a finalist at the last Wimbledon.
In the first Grand Slam with legend Roger Federer officially retired and with Nadal and Djokovic already closer to 40 than 30, the new generations are aiming to end the “Big Three” era.
Finalist in 2022 and 2021, the Russian Daniil Medvedev defeated the American Marcos Giron (6-0, 6-1, 6-2), and the third seed, the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, defeated the French Quentin Halys by 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (8/6).
With more or less difficulties, the Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, the Polish Hubert Hurkacz, the British Cameron Norrie, the American Frances Tiafoe or the Italian Jannik Sinner also passed the round.
The latter will face Argentine Tomás Martín Etcheverry who, after four unsuccessful attempts last year, won his first Grand Slam match.
The same was achieved by his compatriot Francisco Cerúndolo, seeded 28th, who eliminated Guido Pella, also from Argentina.
A bigger milestone was reached by 17-year-old Chinese teenager Shang Juncheng, who became the first man from his country to win in this tournament.