MELBOURNE (Reuters, AFP) - Rafa Nadal defied his gloomy injury prognosis to crush Laslo Djere 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 and reach the second round of the Australian Open on Tuesday (Feb 9).
The Spanish great was not quite at his all-action, fist-pumping best but appeared unimpeded by his back problems as he posted an encouraging win over the 56th ranked Serb in the afternoon sunshine at Rod Laver Arena.
After closing out a tight second set, the second seed played like a man unburdened, racing to the finish line in a hail of winners before Djere conceded the match meekly with a double fault.
“My back is not perfect, as I said a couple of days ago,” said the world No. 2, whose only appearance this year had been an exhibition against Dominic Thiem in Adelaide 12 days ago, where he first experienced stiffness in his back.
“Every day that I’m able to go through, probably there are more chances to be better. That’s the thing now.
“There is always a chance to improve, and that’s why I’m here playing and fighting to try to get better and then give myself a chance.”
The injury forced him to make changes in his service action against Djere, who didn’t have the weapons to trouble the second seed despite Nadal being below par.
“Today it’s not great. I needed to change a little bit the motion of my serve,” he said.
“I need to go day-to-day and just try to stay positive. I’m trying to do all the things possible to be ready for compete – that’s what I came here for.” It was his first competitive match since the semi-finals of the ATP Finals in London on November 21.
Nadal will meet the winner of two qualifiers - American Michael Mmoh or Serbia's Viktor Troicki - for a place in the third round.
In the women's singles, Victoria Azarenka said she did not get her post-quarantine preparations right for the Australian Open after the former champion was knocked out in the first round of the Grand Slam by main draw debutant Jessica Pegula.
The Belarusian 12th seed, beaten 7-5, 6-4, was one 72 players unable to leave their rooms to train for 14 days ahead of the tournament after passengers on their flights to Melbourne tested positive for Covid-19.
Azarenka, who won both her Grand Slam titles at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, said the isolation had taken a toll.
"Was that the best preparation for me? No," she told a news conference.
"The biggest impact for me personally has been not being able to have fresh air. That really took a toll."
The 31-year-old said she had been unable to get her game in shape less than a week after being freed from lockdown.
"I don't know how to prepare after two weeks in quarantine ... I don't have a blueprint how to prepare," she added.
"It's all about trying to figure it out and I didn't figure it out. Not this time." Azarenka started the match on the front foot and was in complete control after racing to a 5-2 lead in the first set.
However, things quickly fell apart as American Pegula, the world number 61, took the next five games to seal the set.
Azarenka's troubles continued in the second set and she took a medical timeout while trailing 4-2 after appearing to have trouble breathing.
The Belarusian did not reveal the reason for the medical timeout, making a plea for privacy in her post-match interview.
"I don't really know why we're getting asked about medical conditions," she said. "All this is going out on the internet after for people to talk about, to judge about.
"I truly don't ever understand why, when somebody is sick, injured or whatever, they have to give their medical reason out in the world. I think that should be changed, unless players do want to talk about it."
After the timeout, Azarenka returned to the court to hold serve and followed that up with a break to draw level at 4-4, but Pegula broke straight back before serving out the match, sealing victory with an ace.
"I'm just disappointed, not being able to perform at my best," Azarenka added. "Leaving Australian Open so soon is also disappointing, but it is what it is."