Nadal grinds, then gallops to victory

  • Dan Imhoff

Rafael Nadal has extended a flawless record over fellow southpaw Federico Delbonis, surviving one of the “more scary moments” of his career en route to the third round of Australian Open 2020 on Thursday night.

The world No.1 had never dropped a set to the 29-year-old from Azul in three prior meetings, and continued that trend with a 6-3 7-6(4) 6-1 victory in his first night clash at Rod Laver Arena for the tournament.

Nadal’s greatest challenge came in a tense 70-minute second set, in which he failed to convert on nine break points before edging it in a tiebreak on a heavy unreturnable first serve.

MORE: All the results from Day 4 in Melbourne

But his greatest scare came with the finish line in sight.

With Delbonis serving at 1-4, Nadal ripped a forehand return off a swinging fault, which thumped a ball girl in the head beneath the umpire’s chair.

The Spaniard promptly ran to check on his stunned victim and planted an apologetic kiss on her cheek.

“For her probably was not a good moment,” Nadal said. “I was so scared for her, honestly. The ball was quick and straight on the head. She’s a super brave girl.

“It [has] been one of the more scary moments I’ve had on the tennis court.”

A touching gesture, but there was a job still at hand.

Delbonis would need to become the lowest-ranked player to beat the 19-time Grand Slam champion at Melbourne Park if he was to pull off the improbable upset from two sets and a break down.

Fortunately for Nadal, his South American opponent’s fading third-set stand lasted only seven more points.

One over-adventurous leaping forehand on the Spaniard’s first match point missed so badly he was left to laugh it off in embarrassment.

But a more routine winner a point later sealed his passage.

The 2009 champion at Melbourne Park was especially effective on serve, as he never faced a break point all night, but he was left to rue a horror break-point conversion rate of only three from 20 opportunities.

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Nadal preserved his perfect record over Delbonis

“I think I can do lot of things better,” Nadal said. “But is not because of Delbonis, no? I can do things better because of myself.

“I need to play better. Especially I need to convert the break points.

“But that's just something that happened today. We don't need to put a lot of attention on this, no? …. I am confident that I’m going to play better because every day in the third set I have been able to show a good level of tennis. I need to do it before the next time.”

Nadal will face fellow Spaniard, No.27 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, for a place in the fourth round.

The winner would meet either Australia’s Nick Kyrgios or Russian 16th seed Karen Khachanov.

And for the ball girl who wore a searing Nadal forehand to the side of the head?

The smile wasn’t leaving her face when Nadal gifted her his headband.