Tennis: Nadal shrugs off 'slow start' to accelerate past Ebden, dominant Sharapova sets up Wozniacki clash

Spain's Rafael Nadal in action during the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan 16, 2019.
Spain's Rafael Nadal in action during the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan 16, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE (AFP) - Rafael Nadal admitted he got off to a "slow start" but he still finished off Matthew Ebden in rapid fashion to reach the third round of the Australian Open on Wednesday (Jan 16).

The 32-year-old's newly remodelled serve briefly came under pressure from Ebden, who enjoyed vociferous home support on Rod Laver Arena before losing 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

The 31-year-old Australian forced three break points at 3-3 in the first set, but could convert none as the Spaniard continued his bid for an 18th Grand Slam championship.

"He is not an easy opponent, Nadal told reporters.

"I started a little bit slow, especially on the return side, serving I think was good from the beginning.

"Then I saved that game at three-all. After that things changed."

It was one-way traffic from then on as Nadal, sporting a trademark sleeveless shirt, cruised into the last 32.

"I played a solid match, I was happy with the way I served. I did a few things very well," added Nadal. "It is an honour to play here. Was a great atmosphere."

In the women's draw, five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova's scintillating return to form continued as she powered into the third round to set up a mouth-watering clash with defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.

 
 

Sharapova, who is seeded 30th at the tournament and seeking to recapture former glories after coming back from a drug ban in 2017, brushed aside Swede Rebecca Peterson 6-2, 6-1.

Those three games are the only ones the 31-year-old has conceded en route to round three at Melbourne Park, where she won the title in 2008 and has reached the final a further three times.

"I'm really happy the way I performed today and obviously it's always great to be back on this court," she said. "Overall, I thought I played a really solid match."

The pair emerged on Rod Laver Arena late in the night due to a long-running men's match, meaning only a smattering of fans were there to cheer on the former world No. 1.

Nadal, who beat James Duckworth in the first round, will have to complete a hat-trick of Australian scalps if he wants to continue his quest for another Slam title.

He faces teenager Alex de Minaur, seeded 27th, next after racing through in just 116 minutes.

"Great player, young, playing with big confidence after winning, I think, seven matches," said Nadal of the 19-year-old who won the Sydney International warm-up after reaching the quarter-finals in Brisbane.

"I think he improved a lot during the last three years. Today he is one of the best players of the world. He is winning a lot of matches. Going to be a tough one."

Nadal pulled out of his Brisbane warm-up event two weeks ago with a thigh strain but showed no sign of the injury woes that saw him limp out of both the Australian Open and US Open last year.

He cut short his 2018 season to have surgery on a foot injury, but was back to his old scampering self on Wednesday, with his new serve seeming to add speed and power to his already formidable baseline game.

"I don't know if it's that good," he said of his fitness after a dominant performance. "I just came back from injury so it is not easy to evaluate yet."

He is bidding to become the first man in the Open era, and only third in history along with Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, to win each Grand Slam on two or more occasions.