Improved Nadal makes foe feel ‘powerless’ at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal feels good about his tennis as the Australian Open heads to Week 2.

“I needed to improve,” he said, “and I improved.”

This assessment arrived after Nadal needed less than 100 minutes to move a step closer to a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over 27th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta in the third round Saturday.

“When he plays that comfortably,” Carreno Busta said, “there’s nothing you can do.”

Nadal’s down-the-line lefty forehand was perfectly on-target and “impossible to read,” Carreno Busta explained.

“Starting,” Nadal said, “to create damage.”

Nadal’s serving was close to impeccable.

“Good news,” Nadal said.

There was a lot of that for him.

He won 52 of 62 points on his serve.

He never offered his opponent a break chance.

He finished with a total of merely seven unforced errors among the match’s 125 total points — and six times as many winners, 42.

“My best match of the tournament so far, without a doubt,” Nadal said. “Big difference between today and the previous days.”

Against “this Rafa,” Carreno Busta said, “you feel a little powerless.”

And to think: Nadal did this after staying up late enough to watch on TV as the man he’s chasing in the Grand Slam count, Roger Federer, was pushed to a fifth-set tiebreaker before getting through to the fourth round at nearly 1 a.m.

That was part of a chaotic Day 5 — including losses by Serena Williams and reigning champion Naomi Osaka, who was ousted by 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff — and the trend continued on Day 6 on the women’s side.

No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 6 Belinda Bencic both exited, meaning eight of the top 13 seeds already are gone.

Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up, lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) to 30th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, while Bencic, a semifinalist at Flushing Meadows last September, offered little pushback while being defeated 6-0, 6-1 in 49 minutes by 28th-seeded Anett Kontaveit.

Kontaveit now meets 18-year-old Iga Swiatek, who is ranked 59th and eliminated No. 19 seed Donna Vekic 7-5, 6-3.

“At this level, everything can happen,” two-time major champion Simona Halep said about all of the surprises, “so that’s why sometimes I’m a little bit stressed.”

Halep, who is seeded fourth, stuck around by beating Yulia Putintseva 6-1, 6-4, and next plays No. 16 Elise Mertens, who ended the Grand Slam return of 20-year-old American CiCi Bellis 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-0.

Nadal won the Australian Open back in 2009 and has been the runner-up four times since, including a year ago against Novak Djokovic.

It’s Nadal’s least successful major tournament: The 33-year-old Spaniard owns 12 trophies from the French Open, four from the U.S. Open and two from Wimbledon.

He’s said he is not focused on whether he gets to No. 20 by the end of these two weeks — or where he ends up in the final count in comparison to Federer or Djokovic, who is third on the list with 16 at the moment.

Likewise, Federer says he figures he knows both of those rivals will overtake him in the Slam standings at some point.

For now, Nadal is tracking his progress on a match-by-match basis.

And for one warm, sunny afternoon in Rod Laver Arena, at least, he was pleased.

Next up could be more of a test: Nadal will take on No. 16 Karen Khachanov or No. 23 Nick Kyrgios, who were facing each other in the third round on Saturday night.

No. 17 Andrey Rublev stretched his winning streak to 15 matches, including 11-0 in 2020, by coming back to defeat No. 11 David Goffin 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (4).

Advancing to a matchup with a quarterfinal berth at stake were No. 5 Dominic Thiem and No. 10 Gael Monfils.

Thiem, twice a runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros, eliminated No. 29 Taylor Fritz of the U.S. 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4, and Monfils beat qualifier Ernests Gulbis 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-3.

“Such a great, entertaining player,” Thiem said about Monfils. “It’s nice to see his show.”

Novak Djokovic to start 2023 in Adelaide ahead of Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic will open his 2023 campaign in Adelaide as he prepares for a shot at a 10th Australian Open crown a year after having his visa revoked on the eve of his title defense.

The 21-time major winner has been granted a visa by the Australian government and has been listed to play at the Adelaide International, which starts Jan. 1.

Serbia isn’t contesting the inaugural United Cup team competition, leaving Djokovic free to play regular warmup tournaments head of the Jan. 16-29 Australian Open.

He’ll be joined in the men’s draw at Adelaide by Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Andy Murray.

Ons Jabeur, Aryna Sabalenka will headline the women’s draw.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles last month confirmed Djokovic had been granted a visa to compete in Australia in January. The 35-year-old Serbian had been facing a possible three-year ban after being deported last January over his stance against COVID-19 vaccination.

Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record nine times, including the last three times he played. Rafael Nadal won this year’s title in Djokovic’s absence.

Djokovic was not vaccinated against COVID-19 when he arrived in Melbourne ahead of the 2022 tournament, but Australia has since lifted strict rules for unvaccinated travelers.

Karolina Pliskova reuniting with Sascha Bajin

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Two-time Grand Slam finalist Karolina Pliskova is reuniting with coach Sascha Bajin ahead of the 2023 season.

Pliskova posted on her website and her Twitter account about the move, which comes about six months after she and Bajin stopped working together. The pair originally teamed up in November 2020.

While Bajin was her coach, Pliskova reached the final at Wimbledon in 2021 before losing to champion Ash Barty. Pliskova also was the runner-up at the 2016 U.S. Open, where she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals before being beat by Angelique Kerber for the trophy.

After splitting from Bajin in July, Pliskova was coached by Leos Friedl. Their results together included a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open.

Bajin has worked as a coach or hitting partner with several top tennis players, including Grand Slam title winners Williams, Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.

“Thank you for having me back,” Bajin wrote on Twitter. “Let’s go get it.”

Pliskova is a 30-year-old from the Czech Republic who reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings in 2017 and finished this season at No. 31 after going 21-21 with no titles.

Her team also includes fitness specialist Jez Green and physiotherapist Martin Salvador.

Next year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open, begins Jan. 16.