Rafael Nadal managed to advance to the Australian Open third round, defeating Leonardo Mayer 6-3, 6-4, 7-6.
Nadal is a 2009 Australian Open champion and former three-time finalist at the event. This is the only Grand Slam he hasn’t won more than once. The world no.1 has had an amazing season last year, capturing his 10th French Open crown and his third one at the US Open. However, there were doubts if he would even play at the first Grand Slam of 2018. Nadal had to withdraw from last year’s Nitto ATP Finals after just one match (lost to David Goffin). He decided not to play official tournaments during the first two weeks of the season in order to preserve his knee and started his season at exhibition events Kooyong Classic and Tie Break Tens. His form there created a lot more doubts as he lost in straight sets to Gasquet at the Kooyong Classic and was also far from perfect at the latter events. The “draw gods” have been extremely kind for Nadal, getting him a virtual “bye” in the first round in the name of a 37-year old Dominican Republic player, Victor Estrella Burgos. It took the Spaniard just under 100 minutes to demolish the veteran 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
Leonardo Mayer is currently ranked at no.52 in the ATP Rankings but has been just outside the top 20 three years ago. The 30-year old Argentinian has never been past the second round at the Australian Open, losing twice at this stage (2014 l. to Djokovic, 2015 l. to Troicki). He definitely provides a better test than Victor Estrella Burgos but it was still doubtful whether he could beat even a not 100 percent healthy Rafael Nadal.
The Argentinian has already lost to the world no.1 four times, taking just one set in their most recent meeting in last year’s US Open first round (6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4). Mayer had to defeat Chilean clay-court specialist Nicolas Jarry in order to book another shot at beating Rafael Nadal. He had no troubles dispatching Jarry in a straightforward 6-2, 7-6, 6-3 score-line.
After his first match, Nadal said “my knee was feeling good” and it was probably in a good condition today too as his movement was not inhibited at all. Mayer knew he had to be very aggressive from the get-go and was doing all he needed to give himself a chance of the upset; serving well, using his volleys to great effect but it was too difficult for him to keep up with Nadal in full flight mode. The world no.1 was once again returning from five meters behind the baseline and it was working wonders as his loopy returns gave Mayer a lot of trouble.
The 2009 champion broke for 3-1 with a stunning forehand down the line. His concentration went away for a second which allowed the Argentinian to create two break opportunities only to see them disappear with Nadal making two big serves just when he needed them most. Mayer managed to increase his level of play and saved four set points while being down 2-5, but that one break Rafa converted earlier in the set was enough for him to take it 6-3.
Mayer was never even let into the second set as Nadal started it with a perfect return to break his opponent’s serve to 15. The Argentinian kept on hitting surprisingly good groundstrokes but it was nowhere near enough to even have a chance against the world no.1, who seemed like a well-oiled, full-power on machine, chasing everything and slamming the ball almost as hard as Mayer. Nadal created two more break chances in the set but he failed to make two consecutive returns. It only meant Nadal had to serve for it, and did so with no notable hiccups. 6-4 to the Spaniard.
In the third set the match slowed down a bit, both held easily up until 2-2 where Mayer quickly slipped to 0-40 but saved all three break points with truly exceptional play. Out of nowhere, he then got his third chance in this match to break Nadal but the Spaniard held with a wonderful forehand down the line winner. Mayer led 40-0 on his own serve at 4-4 but then lost five straight points, including a double fault at deuce. The Argentinian had nothing to lose and it showed as he broke with an exquisite cross-court backhand to level the set. A couple of straightforward holds then led the pair to a tie-breaker.
Nadal and Mayer traded minibreaks in the first two points and then at 2-2 the Spaniard got himself another one with a stunning forehand pass. He rode on that advantage to finish the tie-breaker 7 points to 4.
Nadal will meet Bosnian star Damir Dzumhur in the third round. The 25-year-old has had his career’s best season last year and has booked a meeting with Nadal by defeating Paolo Lorenzi and John Millman. Dzumhur already has a win over Nadal at the 2016 Miami Masters as Nadal called it quits due to physical ailments. With Nadal playing even half as good as he did today against Leonardo Mayer, we can safely assume that the Bosnian will not have enough firepower to cause any trouble for the world no.1.
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