MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal held back time, for one tournament at least, when he rallied for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-2 win over German teenager Alexander Zverev to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open.
The 14-time major winner is on the comeback after an extended injury layoff, yet he finished stronger in the 4-hour, 6-minute match on Rod Laver Arena as Zverev tightened up with cramping and nerves.
“I enjoyed a lot this great battle. I was losing the last couple of times in the fifth set and I said to myself, today’s the day,” said ninth-seeded Nadal, who had lost eight of the previous nine times he’d trailed 2-1 in a best-of-five set match.
His 30-year-old legs, conditioned by 236 Grand Slam matches, carried him all the way.
Zverev’s creative shot-making in the first set and during the tiebreaker in the third gave the 19-year-old a confident start. But Nadal, the champion here in 2009, didn’t let him get too far in front.
In an exchange of breaks in the fifth set, Nadal broke to open, then dropped his own serve, before breaking Zverev again.
Nadal attributed his comeback to two important things.
“Well, fighting – and running a lot,” he said. “I think you know, everybody knows how good Alexander is – he’s the future of our sport and the present, too.”
Nadal, who had two months off with an injured left wrist at the end of 2016, will get another veteran next – either Philipp Kohlschreiber or Gael Monfils.
In another gripping five-setter, but on an outside court, wild-card entry Denis Istomin followed his upset win over defending champion Novak Djokovic with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory over Pablo Carreno Busta.
No. 8 Dominic Thiem beat Benoit Paire 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to set up a fourth-round match against No. 11 David Goffin, who ended Ivo Karlovic’s run 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
Serena Williams reached the fourth round without dropping a set, staying on course in her bid for a record 23rd Grand slam title.
Williams beat fellow American Nicole Gibbs 6-1, 6-3 and didn’t face a break point until she was serving for the match.
Dropping serve in that game was her only lapse in a match that then extended just beyond the hour – to 63 minutes to be precise.
“I don’t have anything to prove in this tournament here. Just doing the best I can,” Williams said. “Obviously I’m here for one reason.”
Williams started the tournament with difficult assignments in the first two rounds, but also got through those – against Belinda Bencic, with a career-high ranking of 7, and Lucie Safarova, a French Open finalist in 2015.
“She makes the court feel very, very small,” Gibbs said. “I was definitely feeling a lot of tension from early on in the match and it was showing in my serve and my forehand. I was catching the net a lot – the net felt 10 feet high today.”
Williams will next play No. 16 Barbora Strycova, who beat No. 21 Caroline Garcia 6-2, 7-5.
Ekaterina Makarova led by a set and 4-0 but had a mid-match fade, needing three sets and almost three hours to finally beat WTA Finals champion Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-3.
“An amazing fight,” Makarova said of her first win over sixth-seeded Cibulkova, the 2014 finalist at Melbourne Park. “I got, to be honest, a bit tight at 4-0 in the second set. But I’m still here.”
She’ll now take on last year’s semifinalist Johanna Konta, who beat former No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 6-1, in a rematch of their fourth-round encounter here last year.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni continued her unlikely run with a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Maria Sakkari, and so did American qualifier Jennifer Brady.
Before this week, the 34-year-old Lucic-Baroni hadn’t won a match at Melbourne Park since her debut at the Australian Open in 1998. The 19-year gap in between match wins at a Grand Slam tournament broke the record set by Kimiko Date-Krumm.
Lucic-Baroni, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 1999, next plays No. 116-ranked Brady, who had never played in the main draw of a major before she qualified for this week.
The 21-year-old American had a 7-6 (4), 6-2 win over 14th-seeded Elena Vesnina on Show Court 2.