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Nadal pain-free in first-round win at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — If Rafael Nadal gave the Australian Open a throwback feel last year with his straight-out-of-the-mid-2000s final against Roger Federer, he’s completed the retro effect this year with a return to his sartorial roots – a sleeveless T-shirt.

Matching the muscle-exposing Nike tank top with neon pink shorts, wristbands and headband, Nadal also found his championship form again in a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 rout of 37-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos in the first round at Melbourne Park.

The top-ranked Spaniard, who made a splash as a teenager with his trademark sleeveless shirts and knee-length pirate pants, came into this year’s Australian Open with questions about his health and readiness to compete following a taxing season that saw him capture two Grand Slams and return to No. 1.

Nadal had been forced him to withdraw from the ATP Finals in November due to a lingering right knee injury, and when the pain persisted, he also pulled out of a season-opening exhibition event in Abu Dhabi and his first tournament in Brisbane.

With only a few exhibition matches last week to test his form, Nadal had doubts he’d be ready to go in time for the first major of the year. But a dominant performance against Estrella Burgos – he had 28 winners and saved five of six break points he faced – left him feeling positive about his start in Melbourne.

“If I don’t feel myself ready, I will not be here. So I am happy to be here, happy that I’m on court again,” he said.

With several top seeds falling on the women’s side, including 2017 Australian Open finalist Venus Williams and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, the men’s draw was largely spared similar upsets.

Third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov advanced with a routine 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 win over qualifier Dennis Novak, while No. 6 Marin Cilic topped Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (5) and local favorite Nick Kyrgios looked sharp in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Rogerio Dutra Silva.

“Obviously I know I’m hitting the ball well,” Kyrgios said. “But to go out there in front of the crowd again, just trying to play well, I was a bit nervous going out there. (I’m) happy to get through.”

No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta, No. 23 Gilles Muller, No. 24 Diego Schwartzman, No. 28 Damir Dzumhur, No. 30 Andrei Rublev and No. 31 Pablo Cuevas also advanced.

No. 8 Jack Sock, No. 11 Kevin Anderson and No. 16 John Isner were among the losers.

For Sock, who lost to Yuichi Sugita 6-1, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3, it was a disappointing result given the impressive way he finished last season with a maiden Masters win in Paris and a first-time appearance at the ATP Finals. He came to the Australian Open sporting a career-high ranking of No. 8 and his highest-ever seed at a major.

The American said, however, that he felt the same as Nadal after a lengthy 2017 – physically spent and lacking enough of an off-season to recover fully.

“It’s just a weird feeling because you’re just on the highest of highs after making it (to the ATP Finals),” he said. “And then it’s back to reality and the grind of it.”

Like Nadal and other top players, he said he’s going to be smarter about his schedule now that he’s among the elite on the tour.

His goal for 2018? “Win a match would be a good start,” he deadpanned.

Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping tournaments like Federer

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MONACO (AP) For now, Rafael Nadal doesn’t see himself skipping any major tournaments the way Roger Federer has been sitting out the French Open.

The veterans are back at the top of world tennis, with Nadal needing to win the Monte Carlo Masters this week to avoid losing his top ranking once again to Federer in their seemingly eternal battle for tennis supremacy.

For the second consecutive season, the 36-year-old Federer is skipping the entire clay-court season in order to be at his best on grass.

After coming back from injury to win the Australian Open last year, Federer skipped the clay-court season, won Wimbledon, and retained his Melbourne crown to extend his record tally to 20 majors.

The Swiss star is keeping his aging body fresher by playing a bit less – avoiding Nadal on clay at Roland Garros or elsewhere – and it is working for him.

But Nadal still thinks he can play a full schedule.

“There (are) tournaments that I can’t imagine missing on purpose, because (they are) tournaments that I love to play,” Nadal said on Wednesday. “I don’t see myself missing Monte Carlo on purpose. I don’t see myself missing Wimbledon on purpose, or the U.S. Open, or Australian, or Rome. These kind of events, I don’t see missing (them).”

The 31-year-old Spaniard recently returned from a right hip injury which forced him to retire during the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

With his 32nd birthday coming up on June 3 – during the French Open – the 16-time Grand Slam champion accepts he may think differently when he gets closer to Federer’s age.

“Of course, when you get older, you need to adjust a little bit more the efforts and the calendar. But for me (it) is difficult to say I don’t play, for example, grass, or I don’t play hard (courts),” Nadal said. “(It) is not in my plan, but I can’t say `never’ because I cannot predict what’s going to be in the future.”

Nadal is chasing an 11th title at both Monte Carlo and Roland Garros, which begins on May 27.

More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Thiem reaches third round at Monte Carlo

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MONACO — Dominic Thiem saved a match point and beat Andrey Rublev of Russia 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday.

Rublev was serving for the match at 5-4, 40-30 but hit a forehand narrowly wide. Fifth-seeded Thiem broke him with backhand pass down the line and held for 6-5.

The Austrian was 15-40 up on Rublev’s serve and clinched victory on his first match point, when Rublev double-faulted with a weak serve into the net.

“I was 10 centimeters from being out of the tournament,” a relieved Thiem said. “But I’m happy that I played two hours and 40 (minutes).”

Thiem has reached the French Open semifinals for the past two years. He next meets 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic or Borna Coric of Croatia, who play their second-round match on Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to watching Djokovic and Coric in front of the TV, and then playing the winner on Thursday,” Thiem said.

In the second round later Tuesday, fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria faced Pierre-Hugues Herbert and seventh-seeded Lucas Pouille played Mischa Zverev.

In remaining first-round play, there were wins for Gilles Simon of France, Marco Cecchinato of Italy and Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany.