Rafael Nadal expected “another very tough match” against Alex de Minaur tonight in the United Cup in Sydney, and he’s getting it, forced to a deciding third set.
De Minaur has caused Nadal trouble on serve all night, breaking early and then often in the second set, claiming the latter to leave the match evenly poised at 3-6 6-1.
All eyes are on the fitness of Nadal after late-season injuries cruelled his 2022 campaign following Australian Open and Roland Garros titles.
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Tonight’s match against de Minaur is just his 10th since withdrawing from the Wimbledon semi-final against Nick Kyrgios and as Nine commentator Jim Courier explained, Nadal “hasn’t played close to that level since then”.
“I was in Los Angeles working calling all of his matches (at the ATP Finals). It was uncomfortable watching the misses that he was hitting because we’ve never seen him miss rally shots like that.”
Nadal lost his opening United Cup match against Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie in three sets.
De Minaur struck first on Monday night, capitalising on a Nadal double-fault and converting the sole break point for a 3-2 edge.
However a pair of double faults, including at 40-30, from de Minaur handed the break right back.
It was all Nadal from there as he broke from 40-0 down in the Aussie’s next service game and went on to claim the first set 6-3.
De Minaur was then broken easily to begin the second set, with Nadal claiming his fifth game in a row.
Yet just when he looked out of it, the Aussie lifted, turning the set into a slog which played in his favour.
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In consecutive Nadal service games, De Minaur earned four break chances and converted the last, then surviving a lengthy service game of his own for a 4-1 lead.
Nadal began to fall apart, remarkably coughing up another break and not playing his typical style of tennis.
“Looking for shortcuts, isn’t he? And the shortcuts mean taking risks,” Tim Henman said on Nine.
De Minaur fell 0-40 down trying to serve out the second set, but saved all three break points and eventually prevailed for 6-1.
Nadal quickly bounced back though, holding to love to open the third and deciding set and then earning four break points – but de Minaur saved the lot of them for 1-1.
The Spaniard was tiring, with his speed of shot diminishing as the match progressed, with de Minaur staying consistent. And as the commentators pointed out, the height of his serve was much lower than usual – suggesting last year’s abdominal injury was still troubling him.
Two unforced errors and a double fault handed de Minaur two break points; he only needed one for a 3-2 advantage. Yet Nadal came straight back needing just one break opportunity for 3-3.
AUSSIE YOUNG GUN STUNS WORLD NO.6
Australian Alexei Popyrin has secured one of the finest wins of his career with a boilover victory over Canada’s world number six Felix Auger-Aliassime.
It was the 23-year-old’s third win over a top-10 opponent, but the first on his own racket, rather than an opponent retiring with injury.
“Yeah, pretty happy. It’s obviously an unbelievable feeling,” the world number 120 said after the 6-4 7-6 (5) win in Adelaide.
“I had a really really tough year last season,” he said, having tumbled from his career-high ranking of 59 in November 2021 to 131 in November 2022.
But after fighting through two qualification rounds, the Aussie’s first main draw match of the year was a remarkable display of big serving and power hitting, combined with an aggressive approach in attacking the net.
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Auger-Aliassime won four titles in a remarkable 2022, as well as the ATP Cup and Davis Cup, and enterd the Adelaide International 1 as the second seed behind Novak Djokovic.
“To beat a player of his quality just shows the work that the I put in the off-season is already paying off at the start of the year,” Popyrin said.
Popyrin hit 12 aces to two double faults, and 32 winners compared to his rival’s 22. He won 22 net points – double his opponent – and also hit fewer unforced errors.
Having stunned the Canadian star in the opening set, Popyrin was broken early in the second set, falling quickly to 0-3 and requiring a visit from a doctor.
But he broke back to make it 3-4 and fought through to the tiebreak. Auger-Aliassime earned a mini-break at 4-3, before Popyrin surged back with some clutch play to win the breaker 7-5.
He will face Marcos Giron of the USA on Wednesday in the Round of 16.
‘AUSTRALIA LOVES YOU’: DJOKER’S BIG RECEPTION
After the ugly drama of 2022, when Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia and forced to miss the year’s first Grand Slam over his anti-vaccination stance, there were some fears that the Serbian star would cop an unfriendly reception from fans down under.
Based on his opening match of the year, those fears were unfounded.
Djokovic lined up alongside Canada’s Vasek Pospisil for a rare doubles appearance in Adelaide – and fans couldn’t get enough.
Fans lined up hours in advance of the match, and chanted ‘Novak’ and ‘Nole’ even before the action began.
There were plenty of Serbian flags and signs, including one showing Djokovic’s face and reading: “Like it or not. Greatest of all-time.”
After winning the first set, one fan roared at the Serb: “Australia loves you.”
But doubles specialists Tomislav Brkic and Gonzalo Escobar fought back to win the second set before a match tie-break, claiming victory 4-6, 6-3, [10-5].
Djokovic spent around five minutes signing autographs with a smile.
His first singles match is Tuesday night.
FRITZ FIRES PAST FORMER WORLD NO.2
Meanwhile, American star Taylor Fritz has brushed aside Alexander Zverev 6-1, 6-4 at the United Cup, with a 21-minute first set highlighting the American’s dominance.
Zverev, who was ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, appeared to be in some discomfort at various intervals and was seen grabbing his elbow at times in the first set.
The German also struggled on his second serve, tossing up a number of double faults with his second efforts clocking at just 105km/h and winning an alarming 33 per cent of second serve points.
World number nine Fritz was all too happy to take advantage of his rival’s struggles as he raced out to a 4-0 lead in just 13 minutes.
Despite a minor fightback from Zverev in which he held serve in the sixth game of the set, Fritz finished it off in emphatic fashion to snag a one-set lead.
The American’s dominance on serve was evident, winning 16 of his 18 service points as Zverev simply couldn’t get a foothold.
Zverev put on an improved display in the second set, landing more first serves at a rate of 85 per cent compared to the first set when he made just 70 per cent.
However, Fritz continued to prove too strong and continued his stronghold when it came to first serve points, winning 17 from 18 at a rate of 94 per cent.
He eventually got the job done in the second set after 43 minutes to give the USA a 1-0 lead in their tie against Germany.
“I’ve just been practising, kind of dialling in some of the things that didn’t feel great for me in the first match,” said Fritz, referring to his opening United Cup win against Czech Jiri Lehecka.
“I’m still working, practising and trying to improve.“I love playing team competition, I’ve always performed in team events,” he added.
“It brings a different energy.”
Fellow American Madison Keys fought past Germany’s rising star Jule Niemeier 6-2, 6-3 to book the USA’s place in the ‘City Finals’ in Sydney against Great Britain. Team GB earlier beat Australia and Spain.
The winner of the “city final” will play in the semi-finals of the United Cup, which will take place in Sydney on January 6 and 7.
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UNITED CUP: Day 5 Order of play (all times AEDT)
Sydney, Ken Rosewall Arena
United States (1-0) vs. Germany (0-2) (Group C)
Taylor Fritz (USA) def Alexander Zverev (GER) 6-1 6-4
Madison Keys (USA) def. Jule Niemeier (GER) 6-2 6-3
Spain (0-1) vs. Australia (0-1) (Group D)
Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. Alex de Minaur (AUS), 7pm
Nuria Parrizas Diaz (ESP) vs. Maddison Inglis (AUS), to follow
Perth, RAC Arena
Greece (1-0) vs. Belgium (0-1) (Group A)
Alison Van Uytvanck (BEL) def Despina Papamichail (GRE) 7-5 2-6 6-3
Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) def David Goffin (BEL) 6-3 6-2
France (1-0) vs. Croatia (1-0) (Group F)
Alize Cornet (FRA) vs. Donna Vekic (CRO), 9pm
Arthur Rinderknech (FRA) vs. Borna Coric (CRO), to follow
Brisbane, Pat Rafter Arena
Italy (1-0) vs. Norway (0-1) (Group E)
Martina Trevisan (ITA) def Malene Helgo (NOR) 7-5 3-6 6-4
Lorenzo Musetti (ITA) def Viktor Durasovic (NOR) 7-6(7) 6-3
Poland (1-0) vs. Switzerland (1-0) (Group B)
Iga Swiatek (POL) vs. Belinda Bencic (SWI), 8pm
Daniel Michalski (POL) vs. Marc-Andrea Huesler (SWI), to follow
ADELAIDE INTERNATIONAL: Order of play (all times AEDT)
Linda Noskova def Daria Kasatkina (3) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-3
Veronika Kudermetova (4) def Amanda Anisimova 6-3 6-0
Alexei Popyrin (AUS) def Felix Auger-Aliassime (2) 6-4 7-6(5)
Elena Rybakina vs Danielle Collins (5), not before 7pm
Thanasi Kokkinakis (AUS) vs Maxime Cressy, not before 8:30pm
Miomir Kecmanovic vs Christoper O’Connell (AUS) 6-3 6-4
Tomislav Brkic and Gonzalo Escobar def Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil 4-6 6-3 10-5
Yoshihito Nishoka def Holger Rune (5) 2-6 6-4 6-4
Jaimee Fourlis (AUS) vs Marta Kostyuk
Shuai Zhang vs Liudmila Samsonova
Irina-Camelia Begu def Shelby Rogers 3-6 7-6(5) 6-1
Quentin Halys def Jordan Thompson (AUS) 6-3 6-4
Mikael Ymer vs Roman Safiullin
Soonwoo Kwon vs Jack Draper
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