Australian Open Day 1: Rafael Nadal stutters into the second round; Swiatek, Gauff, Pegula pick up statement wins

On a day when luck was on his side, top seed Rafael Nadal got his Australian Open title defence off to a winning start by getting past the tricky hurdle of World No. 38 Jack Draper 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1. The 22-time Grand Slam singles champion was far from his best, and while the result and 3 hours and 41 minutes of match time on court are positive, his performance was not.

After prevailing in a steady first set with his serve not faltering and his forehand down-the-line firing, light rain forced a momentary roof closure, following which Nadal suffered a serious drop in level. After folding easily in the second, his opponent’s physical issues – suffering from cramping early in the third and throughout the fourth – led to him capitalising and wearing him down. Had Draper, who looked threatening in the early phases of the match, stayed fit throughout, the outcome would be far more uncertain.

Some tactical problem-solving did show good results, like when he stepped into the baseline to give his forehand more purchase, but after spending most of the match on the backfoot (hitting 46 unforced errors compared to just 41 winners), the Spaniard would be happy to just pass the test.

It was his first win of the year, and second in his last eight competitive matches, and the rustiness was on show. He will be looking to play himself into form over the next few matches. Nadal faces American Mackenzie McDonald in the second round, who got past Brandon Nakashima despite blowing a two-set lead in five.

Elsewhere, the Spaniard’s opponent in last year’s final, seventh seed Daniil Medvedev, notched a statement win over Marcos Giron in the late match on Rod Laver Arena. The Russian, in a small slump by his own lofty standards, blew past his opponent 6-0, 6-1, 6-2. Safe to say he is now over last year’s heartbreak, when he lost the final despite having a two-set lead.

Women’s title contenders step up

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek got her campaign off to a winning start, defeating Germany’s Jule Niemeier 6-4, 7-5. Niemeier was the hardest test for the Pole on her way to the US Open title last year, and much of the same problems that her crafty game posed to her in August, were on show on Monday.

Swiatek, still struggling to fully come to grips with the speed of the hard courts in Melbourne, was not at her best. Her forehand, usually her most potent threat, went missing for much of the match and she usually went too big on the shot to overcompensate, spraying too many errors.

A testament to her mental sharpness, though, the Pole showed up on the big points, sniffing her opportunities at the right time. She broke in the final game to win the first set, and came back from a break down in the second, winning 12 of the last 15 points, to come out with a confidence-boosting win. In a draw that could have many tricky assignments, she faces Camila Osorio next.

There are plenty of title contenders in the women’s draw this year. And Coco Gauff, in Swiatek’s quarter, made quite a statement of her own, defeating Katerina Siniakova 6-1, 6-4, to extend her win-loss record to 6-0 in 2023. The American is yet to drop a single set in any of her matches this year. In a headline-grabbing early round on Wednesday, Gauff faces 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu next.

Gauff’s fellow American, third seed Jessica Pegula, who is a strong contender to take advantage of the quick courts in Melbourne, made an even bigger statement. She needed only 55 minutes to dispatch Jacqueline Cristian 6-0, 6-1 in her tournament opener.

Other notable results:

Men’s singles

(3) Stefanos Tsitsipas def. Quentin Halys 6-3, 6-4, 7-6
(9) Cam Norrie def. Luca Van Assche 7-6, 6-0, 6-3
Alex Molcan def. Stan Wawrinka 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4
(6) Felix Auger-Aliassime def. Vasek Pospisil 1-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-3

Women’s singles

Emma Raducanu def. Tamara Korpatsch 6-3, 6-2
(24) Victoria Azarenka def. Sofia Kenin 6-4, 7-6
Bianca Andreescu def. (25) Marie Bouzkova 6-2, 6-4
(6) Maria Sakkari def. Yue Yuan 6-1, 6-1

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