Rafael Nadal was forced to take his tennis to a sublime level to past Russia’s Karen Khachanov 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-1 on Friday night and advance to the fourth round of the Australian Open 2022.
MORE: All results from Day 5 at AO 2022
Nadal, who is now just four games away from winning the 21st all-time men’s Grand Slam, had lost just one set against the world No. 30 in seven previous encounters. That dominance was ruthless at the Rod Laver Arena.
The world No. 5 heads into his 15th Australian Open last 16 on Sunday, where he meets Adrian Mannarino. The sly Frenchman beat 2019 semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev 7-6(4), 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-4 over four hours and 38 minutes to end the action-packed game at 2:33pm to finish.
MORE: AO 2022 Men’s Singles Draw
“I’ve been through some very tough times here over the last year and a half. But for me, nights like today mean everything,” said the Spaniard.
“That’s a lot of energy in my pocket now to keep fighting every day. For all the effort we put together to try and get me and my team, my family back to where I am today. Means everything is so super happy now.”
Game of the day: Berrettini conjures up escape from Alcaraz
Men’s throw: Zverev shoots, Shapovalov fights his way into the round of 16
During a lull in the action, the big screens showed a fan holding up a homemade poster that read ‘Rafa is the juggernaut of men’s tennis’. It’s hard to disagree.
It was an electric Nadal start, an angled backhand crosscourt winner setting the tone.
Nadal yelled “Vamos”, his bulging biceps tensing, the 2009 AO Champion’s confidence overflowing. A forehand from inside the tramline at the baseline helped post the 3-0 on the scoreboard in just eight minutes.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion prepared for his title chase by winning Melbourne 250 silver earlier this month in the same places. He played like a player with matches in his belt.
In the opening game of the second set, Khachanov went bust. The 25-year-old sped to the net but missed a routine volley and found himself in trouble after two rocket groundstroke errors. It already felt like a crucial game, Nadal’s revolutions on a deep return converted a fourth breakpoint to bolster his authority.
Trailing 2-1, the Russian, who was a recent finalist in Adelaide, picked up sensational back-to-back points to secure a rare break chance.
The first, Khachanov, retrieved a Nadal smash while sliding to the ground before sprinting across the baseline and smacking a backhand pass over the line. He yelled at the crowd and waved his hand at them to turn up the volume. After the next point, which included 30 shots, some searing Khachanov punches and a subtle drop shot, they certainly did to eventually wear down the world No. 5.
Did the comeback work?
Still not entertaining a seesaw fight, Nadal smashed some signature lasso forehands to smash for two sets.
Again at 2-1 in the set, Nadal opened the door and a bubbly forehand winner and a laser beam backhand backhand brought Khachanov an important break.
The number 30 in the world made two break points in the next game with a brilliant double win. The ‘juggernaut’ game was all Khachanov now, the overwhelming force firing the Russian’s racquet to keep his hopes alive.
Nadal needs a moment or magic to regain the initiative. It was 1-0 in the fourth set as he chased a volley from Khachanov to connect with a shoulder-high backhand down the line. The speed, the balance, the execution, it pinged around social media right away. The Spaniard launched into a fist-pumping celebration, back in full swing.
The high-octane tennis went on, the 2009 champion with a handful of highlight-reel forehands to saunter into week two.
“It’s a very special week for me. Coming back after more than five months is just really special every time I get to play here,” said Nadal, whose 2021 season was shortened due to a foot injury last August.
“Tonight I played a great game against a great player and I think a good friend on the tour. It was without a doubt my best match since coming back.”
Tennis Australia recognizes that the AO will be held in Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Country and we express our respect to elders past and present as well as all First Nations .