Showing few signs of rust, Rafael Nadal enjoyed a straight-sets victory on Tuesday to progress to the second round at Australian Open 2021 – the first step in his quest for a men's record 21st Grand Slam singles title.
Nadal was a 6-3 6-4 6-1 winner over Serb Laslo Djere in his first competitive outing of the season, the result setting up a meeting with either Michael Mmoh or Viktor Troicki, both qualifiers.
There was concern with how the world No.2 would fare in his AO campaign, given he was forced to skip the ATP Cup.
“For the last 15 days I have been suffering with the back,” he revealed on the eve of the tournament. Muscle tightness had made it difficult for him to play “with freedom of movement”.
Yet when he walked into Rod Laver Arena for his first-round clash with Djere and began competing, he thankfully appeared unimpeded.
"I needed to survive today and that's what I did. Just tried to be focused all the time, tried to get through,” said Nadal, the 2009 champion at Melbourne Park.
"For me personally, (I'm) happy to be through to the second round. I did I think a good job today. Straight sets, that's what I did.”
The second seed broke Djere in the Serb’s first service game and built a 5-1 lead, before a wobble allowed Djere back into the set. Nadal’s backhand misfired, allowing Djere to snatch one of the breaks back, and when the world No.56 held for 3-5, the set was suddenly tighter.
Despite a lack of match play, Nadal’s competitive instincts remain sharp, and when then opportunity presented itself to serve for the set a second time, he did not falter again.
The second set was a carbon copy; an early break to Nadal, and a slight stumble as he served for it, before the Spaniard prevailed.
He was playing decisively from the baseline, quickly anticipating the direction of Djere’s strokes, and moving nimbly to get in position to reply.
Djere, trying to be the aggressor, was sometimes rewarded but often brought undone, spraying almost twice as many unforced errors as winners in the second set.
With a two-sets-to-love lead, Nadal relaxed into a groove and Djere could not stay with him.
The Serb opened the third set with a double fault to surrender serve. And, increasingly dispirited, he lost in identical fashion.
With several errors handing Nadal a 0-40 lead and three match points, Djere committed a fifth and final double fault to bow out.
In between those two service games, Nadal wowed the crowd with some searing forehands, including two running, down-the-line winners in the sixth game – the second at 160km/h to erase a break point.
"Here I am to try my best as always. That's it. Let's go day by day. Today I was able to find a way to be through. That gives me the chance to have one more day tomorrow,” Nadal said.
"Of course, was not ideal preparation for me, but I am still alive, no? That's the main thing.
"Just happy to be playing in Australia one more time and just want to be here as long as possible."
And so, on to round two. And the longer he does stay alive in the tournament, the closer he gets to achieving tennis history.