As Novak Djokovic found himself in court fighting for a chance to claim a 21st grand slam title, great rival Rafael Nadal has made a winning start in his quest to reach the same milestone.
The Spaniard on Thursday enjoyed a low-key return to Australia and tennis in general, following back and foot injuries and a recent bout of COVID-19.
After a first-round bye, Nadal beat Ricardas Berankis 6-2 7-5 in his first official ATP Tour match since August to move into the final eight at the Melbourne Summer Set.
His match played out as Djokovic’s legal team argued in the Federal Court to overturn the Serbia star’s deportation that sensationally came despite the unvaccinated world No.1 initially receiving a medical exemption to compete.
Like Djokovic and Roger Federer, Nadal is on a record 20 majors – his last triumph coming at the French Open in 2020.
A lone Australian Open title in 2009 has been followed by four losses in the final, while he’s reached the quarter-finals in his past two visits to Melbourne Park.
But with Federer (knee) a no show and Djokovic embroiled in an administrative mess, he’s set to be the only member of the famed trio in a position to move clear later this month.
Nadal said he had some sympathy for Djokovic, but that ultimately he’d been the architect of his own demise given “if you are vaccinated, you can play in the Australian Open”.
The 35-year-old’s presence in Australia was initially clouded too, Nadal testing positive to COVID-19 after his injury return in December.
Bed-bound for several days “shaking and tired” with a fever he rated worse than any other similar illness he’d encountered, Nadal said he was determined to feature in the year’s first grand slam.
“My days had been tough; I was very sick with fever (but) that’s the better way mentally and physically to be ready (to arrive as early as possible) and adapt to the conditions,” he said.
“I felt myself good enough and I always wanted to be back on tour and be here.”
And it appears to have worked, Nadal showing no signs of sluggishness on Rod Laver Arena on Thursday, largely untroubled against Lithuania’s world No.104.
There were a few speed bumps, Nadal broken early in the second set and again as he attempted to serve out the match.
That rally proved to be false hope for Berankis, who was broken to love when attempting to force a second-set tiebreak.
Nadal will play Tallon Griekspoor, who beat Australian Alexei Popyrin 6-3 4-6 6-3 on Thursday night, in the next round.