Nadal reaches Brisbane quarterfinals as comeback continues
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — When Rafael Nadal faced three break points while serving for a commanding first set, a voice in the crowd at the Brisbane International yelled out to Jason Kubler: “You've got him worried now!”
It was a fleeting concern for the 22-time major winner on Thursday in his second match back from a year-long injury layoff.
Nadal won the next five points to seal the set, broke at love to open the second set and consolidated by holding his own serve easily to put him on course for a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Kubler and a spot in the quarterfinals.
“Every day is an adventure,” Nadal said. “I take every day like an opportunity, and tomorrow is another one.”
The 37-year-old Spaniard is playing on a wild card after his ranking slipped into the 600s as he recovered from hip surgery, and he's desperate for match time ahead of the Australian Open this month.
Regaining the mental and muscle memory of navigating the difficult game scenarios is on his must-do list this week.
“It's important to survive these kind of moments because you practice the adversity,” he said. “Something I need to practice again because (it's) been a while, a long time, without being in that position.”
Nadal's first competitive match since January last year was a win on Tuesday against 2020 U.S. Open champion and former No. 3-ranked Dominic Thiem.
“It means a lot to me," Nadal said, "and two victories after a long time being outside of the professional tour is something that, yeah, makes me feel good and happy.”
He was more convincing against Kubler, a hometown favorite who is ranked 63rd after a career interrupted by multiple operations on his knees.
Nadal had 20 winners, including some ripping forehands, and eight unforced errors. As well as his powerful ground strokes and dominant serve, he hit volleys, half-volleys and overheads. He scrambled to chase drop shots and covered the baseline without any visible signs of the injury.
He lost only one point in his first three service games — a double-fault on the second point of the match. But he was also able to dig himself out of a hole when he needed it at 5-1.
The only blip for Nadal was a warning for a time violation for taking too long in a locker-room break between sets. He shrugged it off, saying it was so humid he needed to change his clothing and he thought he was on time. He promised he'd work on changing faster.
Nadal said the hip was “not bothering me at all” and he's not having any issues with his long-term foot problem.
He'll play another Australian, Jordan Thompson, in the quarterfinals on Friday. Thompson got a walkover when fourth-seeded Ugo Humbert withdrew from their second-round match because of illness.
Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka followed Nadal's match in Pat Rafter Arena and she was even more dominant, beating Zhu Lin 6-1, 6-0.
The top-seeded Sabalenka has lost four games en route to her quarterfinal on Friday against fifth-seeded Daria Kasatkina.
Second-seeded Elena Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion, advanced with the same 6-1, 6-0 scoreline over No. 13 Elise Mertens and will meet No. 11 Anastasia Potapova for a place in the semifinals.
Victoria Azarenka is in familiar territory after reaching the quarterfinals in Brisbane, where she won her first WTA title in 2009 when the tournament was staged for the first time.
Azarenka beat Clara Burel of France 7-5, 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals for the fifth time in six trips to the key Australian Open tune-up event.
The two-time Australian Open champion — in 2012 and 2013 — will next face third-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion who beat big-serving three-time Brisbane International winner Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
Grigor Dimitrov, another former Brisbane champion, beat Daniel Altmaier 6-1, 6-2 to reach the men's quarterfinals. Dimitrov will next play Australian wild card Rinky Hijikata, who beat Czech qualifier Tomas Machac 5-7, 6-2, 7-6 (4).
AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis