All Eyes Are on Rafael Nadal With the Australian Open Set to Begin


The defending champion, Nadal has misplaced six of his final seven tour singles matches and is struggling together with his timing, confidence and composure. However don’t rely him out.

MELBOURNE, Australia — The primary collective gasp of this yr’s Australian Open got here Thursday afternoon, 4 days earlier than the match formally begins.

The hubbub got here initially of the boys’s singles draw when Jack Draper’s identify appeared within the second slot within the 128-man subject. That meant Draper’s first-round opponent was assured to be Rafael Nadal, the reigning Australian Open champion and the No. 1 seed within the absence of the injured Carlos Alcaraz.

The excitement within the room was an indication of the left-handed Draper’s gathering energy — a 21-year-old Briton, he’s in type and as much as No. 40 on this planet — but in addition a mirrored image of Nadal’s disarray.

One of many best champions in any sport, Nadal has misplaced six of his final seven tour singles matches, struggling together with his timing, confidence and even his composure as he has been defeated by, so as, Frances Tiafoe, within the fourth spherical of the U.S. Open; Tommy Paul, within the first spherical of the Paris Masters; Taylor Fritz and Felix Auger-Aliassime, in round-robin matches on the ATP Finals; and Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur, within the not too long ago accomplished United Cup team event.

None of these six males has reached a Grand Slam singles last and neither has Hubert Hurkacz, who dealt Nadal his newest defeat — even when it was solely in a observe match — in Rod Laver Area on Thursday night in entrance of some thousand spectators (and a chair umpire).

Hurkacz, a flashy shotmaker with an unflashy persona, isn’t any pushover. He’s seeded No. 10 in Melbourne and can eternally be the final man to face — and defeat — Nadal’s pleasant rival Roger Federer in singles.

Hurkacz defeated Federer in straight units within the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2021, and he appeared significantly looser and extra relaxed on Thursday night than Nadal, who saved casting involved glances at his predominant coach, Carlos Moyá, after lacking groundstrokes and first serves.

“Rafa is definitely susceptible,” stated Todd Woodbridge, the Australian former star who’s now an analyst for Australian tv. “He had that faraway look on a changeover towards Tiafoe on the U.S. Open and it appeared like he had it once more within the match towards de Minaur final week.”

However as Woodbridge and everybody else in tennis have discovered repeatedly over the previous 19 years, you can’t rely out a participant of Nadal’s expertise and interior drive. He has repeatedly risen from the depths, most not too long ago on the 2022 French Open, which he entered injured and slumping however then managed to win his 14th males’s singles title at Roland Garros.

One other title run right here in Melbourne seems far much less doubtless, nonetheless. The opening hurdle is excessive with the 6-foot-4 Draper, who superior to a semifinals match on Friday within the lead-in occasion in Adelaide.

The son of Roger Draper, a former chief govt of Britain’s Garden Tennis Affiliation, Jack Draper was as soon as thought of unsure to interrupt by to the very best stage due to his motion. However he has improved his quickness and courtroom protection considerably in latest seasons.

“It is going to be superb to play on an enormous courtroom towards him; he is a good champion,” Draper stated in Adelaide about his first likelihood to play Nadal. “No matter occurs will probably be a special day for me. I’m nonetheless very younger in my profession, so it’s nice to have these kind of experiences and publicity to enjoying Rafa on an enormous enviornment.”

Get previous Draper, and Nadal might face the rising American Brandon Nakashima within the second spherical, Tiafoe within the fourth spherical and the previous No. 1 Daniil Medvedev within the quarterfinals in what can be a rematch of their topsy-turvy, five-set Australian Open last final yr.

Nadal’s expertise, grit and skill to drawback clear up in best-of-five-set matches shouldn’t be dismissed, and he has been centered on shortening factors and coming to the online in his pretournament classes this week. He pushed ahead usually towards Hurkacz on Thursday.

“I have to win matches, for certain, however the preparation goes fairly properly, training lots and I’m in fine condition,” Nadal stated. “Then it is advisable display that within the matches within the official tournaments, however I’m assured that if I’m in a position to have the final week of optimistic practices, why not?”

Draper just isn’t the one British participant with a high-profile match in Melbourne. Andy Murray, Nadal’s up to date and a former No. 1, will face the previous Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini within the opening spherical. Emma Raducanu, the big-surprise U.S. Open girls’s champion in 2021, might face seventh-seeded Coco Gauff within the second spherical if each win their openers (and if Raducanu’s injured ankle continues to enhance and permits her to participate within the match).

Gauff, 18, struggled together with her forehand and confidence on the finish of the 2022 season, however had a productive low season and on Sunday gained the singles title in Auckland, New Zealand. The occasion was performed indoors and open air due to frequent rain and lacked most of the different main Australian Open contenders.

The favourite within the girls’s draw stays No. 1 Iga Swiatek regardless of her lopsided and emotional defeat to Jessica Pegula of the USA within the United Cup. However Swiatek, who faces the German all-court participant Jule Niemeier within the opening spherical, is in a thorny part of the draw. Her eighth contains the Grand Slam singles champions Bianca Andreescu and Elena Rybakina in addition to Danielle Collins, who misplaced within the last final yr in Melbourne to Ashleigh Barty, who retired final March.

There shall be newcomers as properly, together with the 15-year-old qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova, the youngest lady within the match and a part of the Czech Republic’s large wave of younger expertise that features her sister Linda Fruhvirtova, 17, who can also be making her Australian Open singles debut.

Thursday’s draw delivered one other rarity: a first-round match between two former Australian Open singles champions: Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian veteran who gained in 2012 and 2013, and Sofia Kenin, the American who gained in 2020 however has since dropped exterior the highest 100. That matchup was all of the extra extraordinary contemplating that Azarenka and Kenin are the one Australian Open girls’s singles champions within the draw. The seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams is now retired (or at the least advanced). The 2-time champion Naomi Osaka and the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber are pregnant, and so is Barty, though that occurred after her shock retirement at age 25.

A lot can change in a rush in tennis, as Nadal is aware of properly, and this yr’s match is already a sea change from final yr’s as a result of Novak Djokovic is within the draw after being deported by the Australian authorities on the eve of the 2022 occasion as a result of he was unvaccinated for the coronavirus.

Now, after a change in authorities coverage and after profitable the warm-up occasion in Adelaide, Djokovic, nonetheless unvaccinated, can chase his tenth Australian Open singles title. He’ll face the unseeded Spaniard Roberto Carballés Baena within the opening spherical on the other aspect of the draw from his longtime rival Nadal.

Based mostly on present type, Djokovic profitable his twenty second main singles title sounds much more believable than Nadal profitable his twenty third.


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