Nadal has struggled at times during his 4-set win at the Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal never seemed in danger of becoming the first men’s Australian Open champion…

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – Rafael Nadal never seemed in danger of being first Australian Open the reigning men’s champion lost in the first round as his current coach Carlos Moya managed to defeat Boris Becker a quarter of a century ago.

However, it was not the performance of old for Nadal, who entered Monday’s match against 21-year-old Jack Draper 0-2 in 2023 and six losses in his last seven matches overall. After almost two hours of so-so play, Nadal was tied for the set.

He appeared to be pulling away, taking advantage of his opponent’s bout with cramps on an afternoon in temperatures around 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) when suddenly Draper went up for a break in the fourth set. However, Nadal didn’t drop a game after that, starting his pursuit of a record 23rd Grand Slam title with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory that took more than 3 1/ 2 hours at Rod Laver Arena.

“I need a win, so that’s the main thing,” Nadal said. “The road doesn’t matter.”

That’s a good thing then, because the 36-year-old Spaniard wasn’t at his peak. All in all, it was kind of a struggle. However, he tried to make the best of it given his recent track record and the fact that he has torn his abdominal muscles twice in the past six months.

“I was humble enough to accept that (there were) little ups and downs during the match,” Nadal said. “(It’s) a typical thing when you’re not in a winning mood.”

Both men are left-handed, but that’s where the similarities end, whether in terms of style, age, experience or accomplishments.

Nadal, who is seeded No. 1 because top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz is out with injury, is competing in his 67th Grand Slam. Draper, who was ranked 38th in his career this week, was making his fourth trip to a major and his best showing was a third-round appearance at the US Open last September.

Draper has also faced match-related problems, falling on the court in his ATP Tour debut at the Miami Open in March 2021 and having to retire after one set.

“It’s a real honor to play against him, someone I idolized growing up. To go up against him on a big court like that is special,” Draper said. “I can give up on the fact that my tennis is getting closer and closer. And physically, I’ll be the first to say that I’m still a work in progress.”

This time, signs of trouble showed up early, and Draper was worked up by a trainer during a shift. Later he massaged the right thigh between the points.

Unsurprisingly, Nadal took Draper off the baseline, engaging in exchanges before finding the space to rip a hard forehand one way or another.

“When you win matches, you are more relaxed,” Nadal said. “You’re more confident.”

His next opponent will be Mackie MacDonald, a former NCAA champion at UCLA who won a 4-hour All-American match against Brandon Nakashima 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 1-6 , 6-7 (10), 6-4 points.

Americans Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff and Danielle Collins, the 2022 runners-up at Melbourne Park, all advanced to the second round in the women’s group with wins on Monday. Others to advance included 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu and sixth seed Maria Sakari, while two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka edged out 2020 winner Sofia Kenin from 6-4, 7-6 (3).

It was the biggest surprise of the day the elimination of Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgioswho needs surgery on his left knee.

“Obviously I’m devastated,” said Kyrgios, the 27-year-old Australian who won the men’s doubles championship at Melbourne Park a year ago.

No. 3 seed Pegula defeated Jacqueline Christian of Romania 6-0, 6-1 in just 59 minutes, No. 7 Gauff overcame a second-set wobble to beat Ekaterina Siniakova 6-1, 6-4 and No. 13 During the win over Anna Kalinska 7-5, 5-7, 6-4, Collins had his left knee treated and taped.

Pegula and Gauff could meet in the semifinals; In the fourth round, Collins could play No. 1 Iga Sveontek, who was scheduled to play later on Monday.

“Today was just one of those days where everything worked,” said Pegula, a quarter-finalist in Melbourne each of the last two years. “It’s always good to win a match like this. I think when days like that come you just accept it and don’t complain or criticize. You just move on to the next one.’

___ AP freelancer Simon Cumbers contributed to this report.

___

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