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Rolling on: Rafa stays on the right track

  • Gillian Tan

Rafael Nadal has taken one more methodical step on the road towards a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title.

MORE: All the scores from Day 3 at AO 2022

The powerful sixth seed advanced to the Australian Open's round of 32 for a 16th time, overcoming German qualifier Yannick Hanfmann 6-2 6-3 6-4 in two hours and 42 minutes on a blustery Wednesday afternoon at Rod Laver Arena.

While the Australian Open 2009 champion stretched his unbeaten record against qualifiers at the year's first major to 9-0, it wasn't easy.

It has been three years since Nadal's sole prior tussle with Hanfmann at Roland Garros in 2019, in which the Spaniard conceded just six games. 

The right-handed underdog, with a world ranking of 126, came into Wednesday's meeting with a clear game plan. 

MORE: AO 2022 men's singles draw

Early on, the 30-year-old Hanfmann deployed a series of successful drop shots and booming groundstrokes and, in the fifth game, drew the first break point chance of the match, but failed to convert. 

In reply, Nadal, sensing an opportunity to strike as his opponent rued a missed opportunity, steered a backhand winner down the line to snag break point, clinching it with a crisp volley to take a 4-2 lead. 

The 35-year-old Mallorcan fended off a break point to consolidate, before blasting a backhand winner to take the opening set. 

Nadal showed flashes on Wednesday that his best isn't far away

Hanfmann saved three break points across this first two service games of the second set before capitulating, as Nadal executed a pair of consecutive trademark whipping forehand winners to snare a 5-3 lead. The Spaniard gave fans another reason to wave flags bearing his nation's red and yellow hues, sealing the set as Hanfmann sailed a forehand wide. 

Nadal broke in the third game of the third set when Hanfmann sent a forehand long to end a breathtaking 22-stroke rally, drawing a roar from the frustrated German. 

Later, serving at 3-5, Hanfmann stared down two match points, saving both with skilfully-placed volleys. The German saved another two match points in Nadal's next service game, one with a superb overhand, but was unable to deny the 20-time major champion, sending a forehand well past the baseline on match point number five. 

Nadal's serve came and went, but he had too much in reserve for Hanfmann

Hanfmann, who stopped the Australian summer run of Thanasi Kokkinakis in the opening round on Monday, certainly had Nadal's attention before their match-up. 

"I know he is dangerous," Nadal said in an on-court interview with Jim Courier. 

"The result against Thanasi in the first round here says he is playing great.

"Player with big shots, good serve, very high potential, no? His level of tennis [is] much higher than his ranking says, without a doubt."

Asked by Courier for the secret to his fitness, Nadal wryly said he occasionally chases a smaller ball. 

"I play some golf," he said, as the crowd laughed in response. 

"I never have been a gym guy … I am not a big fan of the gym, I am a fan of playing sports," he added, admitting he spends between one and one-and-a-half hours at the gym some days. 

"Sometimes I am able to have some good practices on court, sometimes I am not able to do it," said Nadal, who is embracing a return to competition after a foot injury sidelined him for the latter part of the 2021 season. 

"I just try to be ready to work; doesn't matter the way – sometimes more tennis, sometimes more gym."

Yet to drop a set this year, the popular Spaniard will be aiming to improve his first serve percentage from Wednesday's 54 per cent in the third round. 

Nadal's next opponent is either 28th seed Karen Khachanov, over whom he holds an unbeaten 7-0 record, or Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi. While Australian Open 2022 is his first-ever major without Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic in the draw, his focus is strictly short-term.

"I am in [the] third round, I need to win very tough matches to be there," he said, when asked about a potential quarterfinal clash against Hanfmann’s compatriot Alexander Zverev.

"Playing against Khachanov now, probably Khachanov ... always is a big challenge against Karen [and] in my situation today, going to be even more. I never think that far, you can imagine now less than ever, no?"

The southpaw played down any expectations.

"I don’t have big pressure on my shoulders, honestly, I don't feel it," said Nadal.

"The pressure is only to stay healthy and to enjoy the fact that I am competing again, then give my best as I did during all my tennis career."