Scrappy win highlights Nadal’s start of contrast

By, Mumbai
Jan 16, 2023 09:21 PM IST

The defending champion got through a tricky opener against Draper at the Australian Open.

“Last year was...yeah...” Rafael Nadal, throwing both his hands up, said, “unbelievable.” He added smiling: “Unfortunately, that is past.”

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts after defeating Jack Draper of Britain in their first round match at the Australian Open.(AP)
Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts after defeating Jack Draper of Britain in their first round match at the Australian Open.(AP)

And quite evidently for the Spaniard.

If Nadal’s first round of the 2022 Australian Open—a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 win over Marcos Giron—was an emphatic statement, his 2023 opener at Melbourne Park was an erratic scrape before he did eventually come through 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 against the cramp-hit Jack Draper. However, that the defending champion is still searching for rhythm in his game, fluidity in his movement and the menacing feel on the ball was there for all to see on a bright Monday afternoon in Rod Laver Arena.

The 22-time Grand Slam champion knows it too, for he hasn’t felt that in the last six months since the abdominal injury at Wimbledon. Starting from the US Open Round of 16 exit, Nadal lost six of the seven matches coming into his title defence in Melbourne.

That includes three-set defeats to Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur at the United Cup to kick-start this season. Exactly 12 months back Nadal, on another return from an injury hiatus, had an ATP 250 title in Melbourne as his Australian Open build-up. It built and how into that "unbelievable" crown No 21 at the season-opening Slam.

Back then, signs that Nadal was there to stay—and sizzle—would come at the start: clinical straight-set wins in the first two rounds before dropping the lone set of the first week against the dangerous Karen Khachanov.

To be sure, Draper is a tricky first test for any top seed to tackle, especially Nadal who isn’t the most comfortable against fellow southpaws anyway. The British world No 38 came into the match on the back of the Adelaide semi-final this month, but it was more about what Nadal did—or didn’t, rather—with his racquet that highlighted the contrast from last year.

"If we put it in the perspective of what I've been through in the last six months, it was a positive start," said the 36-year-old, who also became a father last October, on court.

“I needed a victory, so that's the main thing. Doesn't matter the way," he told reporters later. “We knew (it was) not going to be perfect, as I said the other day. (And it) was not perfect.”

Far from it. After 11 games on serve in the first set—where, in a bizarre incident, Nadal's racquet was mistakenly taken away by a ball boy for stringing—a weak attempted drop shot cost Draper as Nadal pounced on the opening to take the set. The 21-year-old was all over the Spaniard in the second set in which Nadal gifted 14 unforced errors (he ended with 46 for the match, as high as Draper).

Draper, after earning the break back, began to cramp up heading into the last game of the third set. Serving 4-5 and in a spot of bother at 0-30, he set up his opponent for a forehand that Nadal would usually put to bed (and with it, the set). Instead, he mistimed it so woefully that it barely just about landed on the bright blue of the Rod Laver Arena. The Spaniard, after a couple of long deuce exchanges, still managed to take the set and, with Draper in no physical shape for a contest, the match. That particular point though was ample proof that the ruthless in Rafa might take some time to awaken.

“I was humble enough to accept that (there was) going to be a little bit of ups and downs during the match," he said. “Typical thing when you are not in a winning mood.”

The thing with greats like Nadal, however, is that they often get into the mood when the big stage comes calling. With some more time on the court, competitive minutes on the legs and efficiency in play, a below-par Nadal could well yet find that over the next couple of weeks.

“I am ready for the challenge. I'm ready to keep fighting for it," he said. “And victory helps, I can't lie. When you win matches, you are more relaxed. You are more confident. You have better chances to resist these moments.”

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