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With the Australian Open Set to Begin, All Eyes Are on Rafael Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — The primary collective gasp of this 12 months’s Australian Open got here Thursday afternoon, 4 days before the tournament officially begins.

The hubbub got here firstly of the men’s singles draw when Jack Draper’s name appeared within the second slot within the 128-man field. That meant Draper’s first-round opponent was guaranteed to be Rafael Nadal, the reigning Australian Open champion and the No. 1 seed within the absence of the injured Carlos Alcaraz.

The thrill within the room was an indication of the left-handed Draper’s gathering strength — a 21-year-old Briton, he’s in form and as much as No. 40 on the earth — but in addition a mirrored image of Nadal’s disarray.

One in all the best champions in any sport, Nadal has lost six of his last seven tour singles matches, scuffling with his timing, confidence and even his composure as he has been defeated by, so as, Frances Tiafoe, within the fourth round of the U.S. Open; Tommy Paul, in the primary round of the Paris Masters; Taylor Fritz and Felix Auger-Aliassime, in round-robin matches on the ATP Finals; and Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur, within the recently accomplished United Cup team event.

None of those six men has reached a Grand Slam singles final and neither has Hubert Hurkacz, who dealt Nadal his latest defeat — even when it was only in a practice match — in Rod Laver Arena on Thursday evening in front of just a few thousand spectators (and a chair umpire).

Hurkacz, a flashy shotmaker with an unflashy personality, isn’t any pushover. He’s seeded No. 10 in Melbourne and can eternally be the last man to face — and defeat — Nadal’s friendly rival Roger Federer in singles.

Hurkacz defeated Federer in straight sets within the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2021, and he looked considerably looser and more relaxed on Thursday evening than Nadal, who kept casting concerned glances at his predominant coach, Carlos Moyá, after missing groundstrokes and first serves.

“Rafa is definitely vulnerable,” said Todd Woodbridge, the Australian former star who’s now an analyst for Australian television. “He had that faraway look on a changeover against Tiafoe on the U.S. Open and it looked like he had it again within the match against de Minaur last week.”

But as Woodbridge and everybody else in tennis have learned repeatedly over the past 19 years, you can not count out a player of Nadal’s talent and inner drive. He has repeatedly risen from the depths, most recently on the French Open last 12 months where he was injured and slumping before it began but still managed to win his 14th men’s singles title at Roland Garros.

One other title run here in Melbourne looks far less likely, nevertheless. The opening hurdle is high with the 6-foot-4 Draper, who advanced to a semifinals match on Friday within the lead-in event in Adelaide.

The son of Roger Draper, a former chief executive of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, Jack Draper was once considered uncertain to interrupt through to the best level due to his movement. But he has improved his quickness and court coverage significantly in recent seasons.

“It’ll be amazing to play on an enormous court against him; he’s an incredible champion,” Draper said in Adelaide about his first probability to play Nadal. “Whatever happens it can be a special day for me. I’m still very young in my profession, so it’s great to have these type of experiences and exposure to playing Rafa on an enormous arena.”

Get past Draper, and Nadal could face the rising American Brandon Nakashima within the second round, Tiafoe within the fourth round and the previous No. 1 Daniil Medvedev within the quarterfinals in what could be a rematch of their topsy-turvy, five-set Australian Open final last 12 months.

Nadal’s experience, grit and skill to problem solve in best-of-five-set matches shouldn’t be dismissed, and he has been focused on shortening points and coming to the online in his pretournament sessions this week. He pushed forward often against Hurkacz on Thursday.

“I would like to win matches, obviously, however the preparation goes quite well, practicing loads and I’m in good condition,” Nadal said. “Then you have to reveal that within the matches within the official tournaments, but I’m confident that if I’m in a position to have the last week of positive practices, why not?”

Draper will not be the one British player with a high-profile match in Melbourne. Andy Murray, Nadal’s contemporary and a former No. 1, will face the previous Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini within the opening round. Emma Raducanu, the big-surprise U.S. Open women’s champion in 2021, could face seventh-seeded Coco Gauff within the second round if each win their openers (and if Raducanu’s injured ankle continues to enhance and allows her to participate within the tournament).

Gauff, 18, struggled together with her forehand and confidence at the tip of the 2022 season, but had a productive off-season and on Sunday won the singles title in Auckland, Latest Zealand. The event was played indoors and outdoors due to frequent rain and lacked lots of the other leading Australian Open contenders.

The favourite in the ladies’s draw stays No. 1 Iga Swiatek despite her lopsided and emotional defeat to Jessica Pegula of the USA within the United Cup. But Swiatek, who faces the German all-court player Jule Niemeier within the opening round, is in a thorny section of the draw. Her eighth includes the Grand Slam singles champions Bianca Andreescu and Elena Rybakina in addition to Danielle Collins, who lost in the ultimate last 12 months in Melbourne to Ashleigh Barty, who retired last March.

There shall be newcomers as well, including the 15-year-old qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova, the youngest woman within the tournament and a part of the Czech Republic’s big wave of young talent that features her sister Linda Fruhvirtova, 17, who can also be making her Australian Open singles debut.

Thursday’s draw delivered one other rarity: a first-round match between two former Australian Open singles champions: Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian veteran who won in 2012 and 2013, and Sofia Kenin, the American who won in 2020 but has since dropped outside the highest 100. That matchup was all of the more extraordinary considering that Azarenka and Kenin are the one Australian Open women’s singles champions within the draw. The seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams is now retired (or a minimum of evolved). The 2-time champion Naomi Osaka and the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber are pregnant, and so is Barty, although that happened after her surprise retirement at age 25.

Much can change in a rush in tennis, as Nadal knows well, and this 12 months’s tournament is already a sea change from last 12 months’s because Novak Djokovic is within the draw after being deported by the Australian government on the eve of the 2022 event because he was unvaccinated for the coronavirus.

Now, after a change in government policy and after winning the warm-up event in Adelaide, Djokovic, still unvaccinated, can chase his tenth Australian Open singles title. He’ll face the unseeded Spaniard Roberto Carballés Baena within the opening round on the alternative side of the draw from his longtime rival Nadal.

Based on current form, Djokovic winning his twenty second major singles title sounds loads more plausible than Nadal winning his twenty third.

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