MELBOURNE • World No. 1 Rafael Nadal continued his preparations for the Australian Open yesterday with a surprise practice match against Austrian Dominic Thiem.
Fans who did not need to purchase tickets to watch qualifying at Melbourne Park were rewarded with even more free tennis, with Nadal taking on the world No. 5.
With the exhibition match tied at a set all, the duo opted to finish the match with a tie-breaker, which the Spaniard won 10-8, reported the Australian Associated Press.
Having not featured in a competitive match since he withdrew from the World Tour Finals in November with a knee injury, Nadal was clearly keen to shake off the rust before his first-round match against Dominican Victor Estrella Burgos.
Despite questions over the 16-time Grand Slam champion's fitness, Novak Djokovic believes the Mallorcan and defending champion Roger Federer are the men to beat.
The Serb, himself struggling with an elbow injury that ended his 2017 season at Wimbledon, admitted he is not yet fully fit and does not see himself as a top contender when the tournament begins on Monday.
"I'm grateful and flattered that people see me as one of the favourites, but I have to take a step back," said the six-time Australian Open champion, the most successful men's player at Melbourne Park alongside Roy Emerson.
"Roger with the year he had last year and Nadal, I don't think I'll be the favourite. I haven't played in six months. I have great results here, but I'll take it a bit more modestly and see how my matches go."
The former world No. 1 also tipped Nick Kyrgios, who won the Brisbane International title last Sunday, and Thanasi Kokkinakis to do well on home soil.
"Nick is in great form," Djokovic, seeded 14th and set to face American Donald Young in his first match, told Omnisport. "Australians are always getting great support here. Kokkinakis is a good player too. Anything can happen."
Another Australian who has enjoyed a strong build-up to the year's first Grand Slam is Ashleigh Barty.
The world No. 19 will play in her first home WTA final today after defeating compatriot Daria Gavrilova 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 at the Sydney International. Germany's former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who continued her resurgence with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Italian Camila Giorgi later yesterday, stands in the way of Barty's second career title.
"It's nice to make a final at home," said Barty, who opens against world No. 69 Aryna Sabalenka at Melbourne Park.
"But I think in my eyes it's perfect preparation for next week."
Qualifying, day 4: Singtel TV Ch115 & StarHub Ch209, 9.30am