With the Australian Open Set to Begin, All Eyes Are on Rafael Nadal

Melbourne, Australia – First mass gasp of the year Australian Open Thursday afternoon came four days before the tournament officially started.

came at the beginning of the hubbub Men’s Singles Draw When Jack Draper’s name came up second in the 128-man field. This meant that Draper’s first round opponent was guaranteed to be Rafael Nadal. Current Australian Open Champion and in the absence of the No. 1 seed Injured Carlos Alcaraz,

The buzz in the room was indicative of left-handed Draper’s gathering strength – a 21-year-old Briton, he is in form and up to No. 40 in the world – but also a reflection of Nadal’s disorganization.

One of the greatest champions in any sport, Nadal Having lost six of his last seven Tour singles matches, struggling with his timing, confidence and even his composure as he has fallen down the order, Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the US Open, Tommy Paul in the first round of the Paris Masters; Taylor Fritz and Felix Auger-Aliassime in round-robin matches at the ATP Finals; and Cameron Norrie and Alex De Minaur, in the recently concluded Combined Cup team event.

None of those six men have reached a Grand Slam singles final, and neither has Hubert Hercz, who dealt Nadal his latest defeat – even if it was only in a practice match – on Thursday evening at Rod Laver Arena. in front of a few thousand spectators (and one chair umpire).

Hercz, an engaging shotmaker with an engaging personality, is no pushover. He is seeded No. 10 in Melbourne and will forever be the last player to face and beat Nadal’s friendly rival Roger Federer in singles.

Hercj beats Federer in straight sets in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 2021, and he looked much looser and more relaxed on Thursday evening than Nadal, casting a worried eye on his head coach Carlos Moya after missing groundstrokes and a first serve.

“Rafa is definitely vulnerable,” said former Australian star Todd Woodbridge, now an analyst for Australian television. “She had that distant look at a changeup against Tiafoe at the US Open and she seemed to have that again in her match against De Minaur last week.”

But as Woodbridge and everyone in tennis has learned time and time again over the past 19 years, you can’t count out a player of Nadal’s talent and inner drive. He has repeatedly risen from deep, most recently at the 2022 French Open, which he entered injured and then managed to fall. Won his 14th men’s singles title at Roland Garros,

The chances of another title run look slim here in Melbourne. The opening hurdle is high with the 6-foot-4 Draper advancing to a semi-final match in the lead-in event in Adelaide on Friday.

The son of Roger Draper, the former chief executive of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, Jack Draper was once considered untenable at the highest level because of his movement. But in recent seasons, he has greatly improved his quickness and court coverage.

It will be great to play against him on the big court. He’s a great champion,” Draper said of his first chance to play Nadal in Adelaide. “Whatever happens it will be a special occasion for me. I’m still very young in my career, so it’s great to have this kind of experience and experience playing Rafa on a big field.

Move over Draper, and Nadal could face rising American Brandon Nakashima in the second round, Tiafoe in the fourth round and former No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the quarterfinals in what would be a rematch of their topsy-turvy, five-set Australian encounter. Open final last year.

Nadal’s experience, patience and problem-solving ability in best-of-five-set matches should not be dismissed, and he is focusing on reducing points and getting on the net in his pre-tournament sessions this week. He often carried forward against Hurkaj on Thursdays.

“Obviously I need to win matches, but the preparation is going very well, I’m practicing a lot and I’m in good shape,” Nadal said. “Then you need to demonstrate this in matches in official tournaments, but believe me if I am able to have a positive last week of practice, why not?”

Draper is not the only British player with a high-profile match in Melbourne. Andy Murray, Nadal’s contemporary and former No. 1, will face former Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berretini in the opening round. Emma Reducanu, The Big-surprise US Open women’s champion in 2021could face the seventh seed Coco Gauff in the second round if both win their openers (and if Radukanu’s injured ankle continues to improve and allows him to participate in the tournament).

Gauff, 18, struggled with her forehand and confidence at the end of the 2022 season but has been productive in the off-season and won the singles title in Auckland, New Zealand on Sunday. The event was played indoors and outdoors due to persistent rain and the absence of several other major Australian Open contenders.

Iga Swiatek remains the No. 1 favorite in the women’s draw despite a lopsided and emotional defeat to Jessica Pegula of the United States in the United Cup. But Swiatek, who faces German all-court player Jule Niemeyer in the opening round, is in a thorny section of the draw. Her eighth Grand Slam singles champion includes Bianca Andreescu and Elena Ryabkina as well as Danielle Collins, who lost in the final in Melbourne last year to Ashleigh Barty, who retired last March.

Also included is 15-year-old qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova, the youngest woman in the tournament and part of a larger wave of young talent from the Czech Republic, which also includes her 17-year-old sister Linda Fruhvirtova, making her also an Australian. . Open singles debut.

Thursday’s draw provided another rarity: a first-round match between two former Australian Open singles champions: Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian veteran who won in 2012 and 2013, and Sofia Kenin, the American who won in 2020 but has since topped 100 This matchup was even more unusual as Azarenka and Kenin are the only Australian Open women’s singles champions in the draw. Seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams Is now retired (or at least developed), Two-time champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber are pregnant, and Barty is pregnant as well, though later His surprise retirement at the age of 25,

A lot can change in a hurry in tennis, as Nadal knows well, and this year’s tournament is already a big change from last year because Novak Djokovic is in the draw after being banished by the Australian Government on the eve of the 2022 event Because he was not vaccinated for the corona virus.

Now, following a change in government policy and winning the warm-up event in Adelaide, Djokovic, still unvaccinated, can chase his 10th Australian Open singles title. He will face unseeded Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain in the opening round on the opposite side of the draw from his long-time rival Nadal.

Based on current form, Djokovic winning his 22nd major singles title looks far more believable than Nadal winning his 23rd.

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