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Improved Nadal makes foe feel ‘powerless’ at Australian Open

Rafael Nadal

Spain’s Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta during their third round singles match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)


MELBOURNE, Australia -- Rafael Nadal feels good about his tennis as the Australian Open heads to Week 2.

“I needed to improve,” he said, “and I improved.”

This assessment arrived after Nadal needed less than 100 minutes to move a step closer to a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over 27th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta in the third round Saturday.

“When he plays that comfortably,” Carreno Busta said, “there’s nothing you can do.”

Nadal’s down-the-line lefty forehand was perfectly on-target and “impossible to read,” Carreno Busta explained.

“Starting,” Nadal said, “to create damage.”

Nadal’s serving was close to impeccable.

“Good news,” Nadal said.

There was a lot of that for him.

He won 52 of 62 points on his serve.

He never offered his opponent a break chance.

He finished with a total of merely seven unforced errors among the match’s 125 total points -- and six times as many winners, 42.

“My best match of the tournament so far, without a doubt,” Nadal said. “Big difference between today and the previous days.”

Against “this Rafa,” Carreno Busta said, “you feel a little powerless.”

And to think: Nadal did this after staying up late enough to watch on TV as the man he’s chasing in the Grand Slam count, Roger Federer, was pushed to a fifth-set tiebreaker before getting through to the fourth round at nearly 1 a.m.

That was part of a chaotic Day 5 -- including losses by Serena Williams and reigning champion Naomi Osaka, who was ousted by 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff -- and the trend continued on Day 6 on the women’s side.

No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 6 Belinda Bencic both exited, meaning eight of the top 13 seeds already are gone.

Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) to 30th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, while Bencic, a semifinalist at Flushing Meadows last September, offered little pushback while being defeated 6-0, 6-1 in 49 minutes by 28th-seeded Anett Kontaveit.

Kontaveit now meets 18-year-old Iga Swiatek, who is ranked 59th and eliminated No. 19 seed Donna Vekic 7-5, 6-3.

“At this level, everything can happen,” two-time major champion Simona Halep said about all of the surprises, “so that’s why sometimes I’m a little bit stressed.”

Halep, who is seeded fourth, stuck around by beating Yulia Putintseva 6-1, 6-4, and next plays No. 16 Elise Mertens, who ended the Grand Slam return of 20-year-old American CiCi Bellis 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-0.

Nadal won the Australian Open back in 2009 and has been the runner-up four times since, including a year ago against Novak Djokovic.

It’s Nadal’s least successful major tournament: The 33-year-old Spaniard owns 12 trophies from the French Open, four from the U.S. Open and two from Wimbledon.

He’s said he is not focused on whether he gets to No. 20 by the end of these two weeks -- or where he ends up in the final count in comparison to Federer or Djokovic, who is third on the list with 16 at the moment.

Likewise, Federer says he figures he knows both of those rivals will overtake him in the Slam standings at some point.

For now, Nadal is tracking his progress on a match-by-match basis.

And for one warm, sunny afternoon in Rod Laver Arena, at least, he was pleased.

Next up could be more of a test: Nadal will take on No. 16 Karen Khachanov or No. 23 Nick Kyrgios, who were facing each other in the third round on Saturday night.

No. 17 Andrey Rublev stretched his winning streak to 15 matches, including 11-0 in 2020, by coming back to defeat No. 11 David Goffin 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (4).

Advancing to a matchup with a quarterfinal berth at stake were No. 5 Dominic Thiem and No. 10 Gael Monfils.

Thiem, twice a runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros, eliminated No. 29 Taylor Fritz of the U.S. 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4, and Monfils beat qualifier Ernests Gulbis 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-3.

“Such a great, entertaining player,” Thiem said about Monfils. “It’s nice to see his show.”