Rafael Nadal oozed calm in his pre-tournament press conference at the Australian Open. The 36-year-old Spaniard is the defending champion and the top seed at the first major of the season and although he has been in an uncharacteristic rut in terms of form, Nadal eased past Jack Draper Monday under a clear blue Melbourne sky with the temperature at around 30 degrees Celsius to reach the second round with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 win on Rod Laver Arena. Nadal had said before the match that Draper, a hard-hitting 21-year-old Briton ranked 38 in the world, was possibly the toughest first-round opponent he could have faced. After more than three and a half hours on court, the Spaniard was happy to have got over the first hurdle. “I need a victory, so that’s the main thing,” he said. “Doesn’t matter the way.
Nadal had not lost in the first round in Melbourne since 2016, against his compatriot Fernando Verdasco, which was also the only time he failed to get past the opening round at the Australian Open. As ever, though, the attention of Nadal’s team and the viewing public is focused on Novak Djokovic, who was unable to play last year due to his Covid-19 vaccination status but comes into the tournament on the back of winning the title at the Adelaide International.
Monday’s game was not a vintage performance by Nadal, who went into the matchup against 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 when suddenly Draper went up by a break in the fourth set. From there, though, Nadal would not drop another game as he began his pursuit of a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam championship.
“I was humble enough to accept that [there were] going to be a little bit of ups and downs during the match,” Nadal said. “[That’s a] typical thing when you are not in a winning mood.”
Nadal travelled to Melbourne on December 26 to begin his preparation but lost to Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur at the warm-up United Cup event. “The last few months have been difficult,” said Nadal, who admitted his preparation for the Australian Open has been shorter than he would have liked. “I have the feeling that I’m better now than three weeks ago,” he said before facing Draper. “I didn’t play badly in the first two games of the year, I lost against two strong opponents, but I had a chance to win. I have lost more than usual but that’s part of the business.”
The Spaniard, who is seeking a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam title in Melbourne, will play Mackie McDonald in round two. A past NCAA champion at UCLA, McDonald won an all-American matchup against Brandon Nakashima, 7-6, 7-6, 1-6, 6-7, 6-4.
Nadal is seeded one in Melbourne because top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz is sidelined with an injury. Djokovic, who is appearing at his 18th Australian Open and has won the title on nine occasions, is seeded four after missing chunks of the 2022 season due to coronavirus regulations: the first time since 2018 he has not been one of the top two seeds. However, he and Nadal still cannot meet until the final on January 29.
“It seems that he [Djokovic] has come very well prepared and he has done great results; today, he is undoubtedly the top favorite to win the title, what happens is that you have to work and do well for two weeks. If he wins, he will have done something historic and that’s it, my life won’t change,” said Nadal before the tournament.
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