Friday 15 December 2017

Tennis: Rafael Nadal eases through to third round of Australian Open

WORLD No 2 Rafael Nadal has secured his place in the last 32 of the Australian Open after beating Germany's Tommy Haas 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

When you're talking about the three great champions of men’s tennis, it’s often the one nobody’s tipping who emerges from the pack.

Novak Djokovic was a surprise winner here a year ago, then a supposedly declining Roger Federer perked up at the end of the 2011 season with three straight tournament wins. As for Rafael Nadal, he is never so dangerous as when everyone is looking the other way.

Nadal had a dismal finish to last year, but he is coming into this Australian Open with an adjusted racket, one in which the head weighs an extra ounce or two. The theory is that the change will give him extra zip on his groundstrokes, and a punchier serve. And for the first half-dozen games of today's match against Tommy Haas, this plan could not have run more smoothly.

In those early exchanges, Nadal gave as fine an exhibition as you are likely to see in the second round of a Grand Slam (when the leading players tend to be holding back their peak form). He stepped up into the court, belying his reputation as a deep-lying grinder, and lashed a series of spectacular winners off his forehand side.

Haas is no mug, even if he might be one of the tour’s veterans at 33. A former Wimbledon semi-finalist, he unfurled some sublime strokes of his own, particularly with his elegant single-handed backhand. But he was unable to stop the relentless Nadal from charging out to a 4-0 lead. Few players could have lived with this.

It took 10 points, and seven minutes of rallies, before Nadal missed his first shot. As was perhaps inevitable, though, he was unable to sustain the same level of brilliance. And Haas deserves much credit for the way he fought back to limit the damage to a 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 defeat. In the end, a match which looked like lasting 90 minutes took two-and-a-half hours.

The important point, though, is that Nadal had established a blueprint for this year’s campaign. After the end of last season, when he became so tentative that he was relying on his opponents’ errors for the majority of his points, he has clearly decided to crank up his aggression, just as he did when winning three Grand Slam titles during his barnstorming 2010 season.

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