MELBOURNE—Rafael Nadal never truly seemed in danger of becoming the first Australian Open defending men’s champion to lose in the first round since his current coach, Carlos Moya, managed to beat Boris Becker a quarter of a century ago.
Still, this was not a vintage performance by Nadal, who came into Monday’s matchup of left-handers against 21-year-old Jack 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 on an afternoon with the temperature at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), when suddenly Draper went up by a break in the fourth set. From there, though, Nadal would not drop another game, beginning his pursuit of a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam championship with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory that took more than three-and-a-half hours in Rod Laver Arena.
Nadal was not in peak form. All in all, it was a bit of a struggle. He tried to put a silver-lining spin on things, nonetheless.
“If we put in perspective all the situation that I went through the last six months,” the 36-year-old from Spain said, “I think it was a very positive start.”
Americans Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff and Danielle Collins, the 2022 runner-up at Melbourne Park, all reached the second round in the women’s bracket with victories earlier Monday.
The biggest surprise of the day was the withdrawal of Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios, who needs surgery on his left knee.
Third-seeded Pegula overwhelmed Jaqueline Cristian of Romania, 6-0, 6-1, while seventh-seeded Gauff overcame a second-set wobble to beat Katerina Siniakova, 6-1, 6-4.
Collins, the runner-up last year to Ash Barty and seeded 13th, battled a left knee injury while defeating Anna Kalinskaya, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.
Pegula and Gauff could meet in the semifinals while Collins could play No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.
A quarterfinalist in Melbourne in each of the past two years, Pegula needed just 59 minutes to get past the 161st-ranked Cristian, who was appearing in her third Grand Slam event. AP
“Today is just one of those days everything was working,” said the American, who will play either Czech qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova or Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the second round.
“Always feels good when you win a match like that. I think when those days come you just kind of take it and don’t complain and don’t critique. You kind of just move on to the next one.”
Gauff, who reached her first Grand Slam singles final at the French Open last year, was given the honor of opening proceedings on Rod Laver Arena and dominated Siniakova in the first set.
The Czech player led 4-2 in the second set but Gauff rallied and clinched victory on her seventh match point.
“I was not expecting to open the tournament on Rod Laver,” Gauff said. “I’m super-honored that the tournament chose me and Katerina. I’m really pleased with myself. Katerina’s a fighter, I knew she was going to fight for every point. I just stayed strong mentally.”
Gauff will now play former US Open champion Emma Raducanu after the British player shrugged off a bothersome left ankle issue to beat Tamara Korpatsch of Germany, 6-3, 6-2.
Collins required a medical timeout for a left knee issue early in the first set of her match with Kalinskaya but survived to win in just over three hours.
Another former US Open champion, Bianca Andreescu, advanced to the second round but 28th-seeded Amanda Anisimova was beaten 6-3, 6-4 by Marta Kostyuk.
Image credits: AP