Back at the Australian Open for the first time since his epic five-set comeback in the 2022 final, top seed Rafael Nadal won another see-saw match in Rod Laver Arena to kickstart his title defence on Monday afternoon. The Spaniard delivered in the crucial moments of a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory against 21-year-old debutante Jack Draper to reach the Melbourne second round for the 17th time.

“Last year was without a doubt one of the most emotional tournaments of my tennis career. I’m super happy to be back here in Australia one more time,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “I know it’s my 19th season on the professional Tour. I’m very excited about this new beginning, just super happy to be back here in Rod Laver Arena with a victory that I needed. The last couple of months haven’t been easy for me, but hopefully this victory is going to help me.”

In an all-lefty matchup, Nadal clinched sets one and three with decisive, late breaks to make up for what was nearly a 6-0 second set for Draper. The Briton went toe-to-toe with Nadal and dominated for stretches, but ultimately fell victim to the 36-year-old’s relentless pressure.

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As the Spaniard reclaimed the initiative in the third set, finding his forehand from all parts of the court, Draper began to struggle with cramps and required treatment during several changeovers.

Both players produced some of their best tennis early in the fourth set, with Draper claiming his fourth break for an early lead. But Nadal rattled off the final six games as Draper’s physical issues hampered him more and more.

Stepping up when it counts 💪@RafaelNadal breaks Draper to grab the first set 7-5!@wwos@espn@eurosport@wowowtennis#AusOpen#AO2023 pic.twitter.com/Nt4XLmbhDw

— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 16, 2023

“If we put [today’s match] in the perspective of all that I went through in the past six months, [it was] a very positive start,” the Spaniard added. “I played against one of the toughest opponents possible in the first round, being seeded. He is young, he has the power and I think he has a great future in front [of him]. We are going to see him playing a lot of years here, having very good results.”

The pair’s first ATP Head2Head matchup was briefly interrupted by rain at several moments early on, and the action on the court seemed to match that stop-start pattern as both men took turns dictating from the baseline. After narrowly missing out on the opening set, Draper raced to a 4-0 lead in the second behind his driven forehand, playing with great confidence in his Australian Open debut.

The match was in the balance as Draper clawed back from 1-4 to level the third set, but Nadal did just enough to keep his opponent at bay and squash any hope of an upset, with the fourth set never in doubt.

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Playing for a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam singles title, Nadal is seeking his third Australian Open title (2009, 2022). He will meet Mackenzie McDonald in the second round after the American’s 7-6(5), 7-6(1), 1-6, 6-7(10), 6-4 win against countryman Brandon Nakashima on Monday.

On the heels of a semi-final run in Adelaide, Draper was bidding to reach the second round at a Grand Slam for the third time. His best major result is a third-round run at the 2022 US Open, where he upset Felix Auger-Aliassime. With defeat to Nadal, the Briton fell to 0-2 against top seeds at the Slams, having lost to Novak Djokovic at 2021 Wimbledon in his major debut.

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