Rafael Nadal was forced to elevate his tennis to a sublime level to navigate past Russian Karen Khachanov 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-1 to advance into the fourth round of Australian Open 2022 on Friday night.
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Nadal, now just four matches away from clinching a men's all-time leading 21st Grand Slam, had only lost one set to the world No.30 in seven previous encounters. That dominance remained in ruthless fashion on Rod Laver Arena.
The world No.5 heads onto his 15th Australian Open last 16 berth on Sunday, where he'll meet Adrian Mannarino. The wily Frenchman outlasted 2019 semifinalist Aslan Karatsev 7-6(4) 6-7(4) 7-5 6-4 over four hours and 38 minutes to halt the action-packed play at 2:33am.
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"I have been going through some here some very tough times last year and a half. But for me, nights like today means everything," said the delighted Spaniard.
"Now that's a lot of energy in my pocket to keep going keep fighting every single day. For all the effort we put together me and my team, my family, to try to be back where I am today. Means everything now so super happy."
During a break in the action, the big screens showed a fan holding up a homemade poster which read, "Rafa is the juggernaut of men's tennis." It's hard to argue with that.
It was an electrifying Nadal start, an angled backhand cross court winner set the tone.
Nadal yelped out "vamos," bulging bicep flexed, the AO 2009 champion's confidence was oozing. A forehand smash from inside the tramline by the baseline helped post 3-0 on the scoreboard in just eight minutes.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion geared up for his title pursuit by lifting the Melbourne 250 silverware on the very same courts earlier this month. He was on song like a player with matches under their belt.
In the opening game of the second set, Khachanov went for broke. The 25-year-old raced to the net, only to miss a routine volley and was in trouble following two missile groundstroke errors. It already felt like a pivotal game, Nadal's revolutions on a deep return converting a fourth break point to stamp his authority.
Down 2-1 the Russian, a recent finalist in Adelaide, claimed sensational back-to-back points to chalk up a rare break opportunity.
The first, Khachanov retrieved a Nadal smash whilst slipping to the floor, before sprinting across the baseline and clattering a backhand pass down the line. He roared to the crowd, whipping his hand to signal them to raise the volume. They certainly did after the next point, which involved 30 shots, some scorching Khachanov strokes and a subtle drop shot to eventually wear down the world No.5.
Was the comeback on?
Nadal was not entertaining a seesaw battle, yet, crushing some trademark lasso forehands to strike for two sets up.
Again at 2-1 in the set, Nadal opened the door and a fizzing forehand winner and laser beam backhand return earned a vital break for Khachanov.
The world No.30 dismissed a brace of break points in the very next game with blazing one-two striking. The 'juggernaut' play was now all Khachanov, the overwhelming force fired off the Russian's racquet to keep his hopes alive.
Nadal need a moment or magic to snatch back the initiative. It came at 1-0 in the fourth set, chasing down a Khachanov volley to connect with a shoulder-high backhand down the line. The velocity, the balance, the execution, it was pinging around social media instantly. The Spaniard launched into a fist-pumping celebration, back in full flight.
The high-octane tennis continued, the 2009 champion with a handful of highlight-reel forehands to saunter through into the second week.
"It's a very special week for me. Coming back after for more than five months, every single time that I'm able to play here is just a very special thing," claimed Nadal, who had his 2021 season curtailed due to a foot injury last August.
"Now tonight I played a great game, against a great player and I think a good friend on tour. It's been my best match without a doubt since coming back, for sure."