MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal has missed a lot of tennis since last September. He hasn’t missed a beat.
The No. 2-seeded Nadal had a 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 win over Australian wild-card entry James Duckworth on Monday in the first round of the Australian Open, his first match back on Rod Laver Arena since he had to retire during his quarterfinal match last year.
The 17-time major winner hasn’t played since retiring from his semifinal at the U.S. Open because of a knee injury, and then had surgery on his right ankle in November. He also withdrew from a tune-up tournament in Brisbane because of a muscle strain in his thigh, mainly as a precaution, to ensure he’s fit for the season-opening major.
"Not easy to come back after a lot of months of competition, especially against a player playing super aggressive every shot," Nadal said. "It’s very difficult to start after an injury — I know it very well.
"So that’s an important victory because is the first victory since a while, and at the same time, because that gives me the chance to be on court again."
Wearing a sleeveless top, he showed no signs of any issues against Duckworth. His only hiccup came when he served for the match in the ninth game of the third set and was broken. He returned the favour quickly, though, to seal his spot in the second round.
Nadal has only lost twice in the first round at Grand Slams — to Steve Darcis at 2013 Wimbledon, and to Fernando Verdasco here in 2016.
Maria Sharapova’s record in the first round is good, too. She was the first of five Australian Open winners to play on Rod Laver Arena on Day 1, starting with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Harriet Dart. No. 2-ranked Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open champion, opened with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Polona Hercog and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki beat Alison Van Uytvanck 6-3, 6-4 in the first of the night matches on the main arena.
Sharapova has the second-best record (behind Serena Williams) among active women’s players in first-round matches at the majors, and she gave an illustration of why that’s the case in a 63-minute disposal of Dart.
Stung by a first-round loss at Wimbledon last year, 2008 Australian Open champion Sharapova said she couldn’t afford to feel any empathy for Dart.
"There is no time for that, I’m sorry to say … when you’re playing the first round of a Grand Slam," said Sharapova, who is still feeling pain in her right shoulder despite sitting out the end of last season after the U.S. Open. "I think I was just focused on not having a letdown."
Also advancing were 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, No. 9 Kiki Bertens, No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka, local favourite Ash Barty, No. 19 Caroline Garcia, No. 20 Anett Kontaveit, No. 24 Lesia Tsurenko, No. 29 Donna Vekic and No. 31 Petra Martic.
Katie Boulter earned the distinction of winning the first 10-point tiebreaker under the Australian Open’s new system for deciding sets, and she celebrated twice.
Boulter beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (6), including 10-6 in the tiebreaker. Boulter started celebrating and went to the net when she reached 7-4 in the tiebreaker, forgetting it wasn’t a conventional count.
The new rule was introduced to ensure matches don’t get too lengthy — previously the third set in women’s matches and the fifth set in men’s matches at the Australian Open had to be decided by a two-game advantage.
Fifth-seeded Kevin Anderson won his first match at Melbourne Park since 2015 when he beat Adrian Mannarino 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1. Also advancing on the men’s side were No. 14 Stefanos Tsitsipas, no. 18 Diego Schwartzman, No. 19 Nikoloz Basilashvili, No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 26 Fernando Verdasco and No. 27 Alex de Minaur, who won the Sydney International final last weekend.
It was high stakes when ninth-seeded John Isner lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (6), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) to No. 97-ranked Reilly Opelka in a match featuring two of the tallest players on tour.
Tomas Berdych sent 2018 Australian Open semifinalist Kyle Edmund home early with right away with a 6-3, 6-0, 7-5 win over the No. 13 seed on Melbourne Arena in the match before five-time finalist Andy Murray took on Roberto Bautista Agut.