Rafael Nadal’s bid for a second Australian Open title – a decade after his first – is up and running with the No.2 seed seeing off a late surge from Aussie James Duckworth on Monday.
The Spaniard looked to be cruising to a convincing straight-sets result before he was broken to love when serving to close it out.
Duckworth, rebuilding after an injury-ravaged two years, had the home crowd baying for a fourth set, and lifted to level before Nadal broke for a sixth time to secure a 6-4 6-3 7-5 victory.
It was the type of early test that will steel the 33-year-old, coming off ankle surgery in November 2018, and having played just two exhibition matches leading in.
“Of course, it’s not easy to come back after a lot of months especially against a player playing super aggressive every shot,” Nadal said. “He went on court with determination not to hit more than two balls in a row from the baseline, it was tough.”
“My serve worked well. I don’t know my percentage, but there were a lot of good positions after the first serve.
“I felt solid with the second [serve]. And in general terms I am happy about the victory of today against, as I said before, a very difficult opponent to play.”
Duckworth would have been forgiven for thinking his luck was out having drawn big names Andy Murray, Alexander Zverev and Marin Cilic in the first round of his past three majors.
His game plan was clear from the outset – he would not be pushed around. But his errors were flowing too quick, too soon early on and he surrendered his opening service game on a double fault.
It had been a brutal two years for the Australian before winning December’s Australian Open Wildcard Playoff. He had three surgeries in 2017 and last year, underwent foot and right elbow surgeries after the Australian Open.
The 26-year-old, now ranked 237th, mixed it up throughout the first set and clocked his 13th winner of the set to save a set point but struggled to keep his error count in check as Nadal wrapped up the first set with just one unforced error to his name.
Duckworth took command early in the second set, pumping the crowd up with a break of serve for 2-0.
Just when he’d worked his way back into the match, however, he dropped serve from 40-0 up to completely switch momentum in the world No.2’s favour.
The Spaniard reeled off six of the next seven games to take a two-set lead and it was vintage Nadal when he threaded back-to-back running forehand passes to break for 4-2 in the third.
A bout of nerves was to be expected having not played a tour-level match since the US Open in September.
But Nadal settled to avoid a fourth set and set a second-round showdown with another Australian, Matthew Ebden, or German Jan-Lennard Struff.
“I’m happy for everything,” Nadal said.
“It was a sad position to not play in Brisbane as I had a small issue on the leg. But that happens, especially when you’re coming back. It’s always different pains appearing in the first weeks after a while.
“It is normal that beginnings are tough, but every day helps and every day makes me feel better, makes me feel more confident. So that’s an important victory.”
Source: Dan Imhoff