Tennis: Rafael Nadal back in form at Australian Open despite injury-disrupted build-up

Rafa Nadal has defied his gloomy injury prognosis and complete lack of match practice to crush Laslo Djere 6-3 6-4 6-1, launching his bid for a record 21st Grand Slam title.

The Spanish great had pulled out of his nation's ATP Cup campaign with a back problem and bordered on mournful on the eve on the Grand Slam, when he said the injury affected him.

Yet he was close to his all-action, fist-pumping best, as he bounced around a sun-bathed Rod Laver Arena in the final set against Djere, painting the lines with trademark top-spin bombs.

"It's been a tough 15 days for me," says the 2009 champion. "I needed to survive today, so that's what I did.

"I'm still alive and that's the main thing."

Second seed Nadal says his back still bothered him against world No.56 Djere, the Spaniard's first match since losing in the semi-finals of the ATP Finals in November.

"Today, it's not great. I needed to change a little bit the motion of my serve.

"That's what I tried to survive that condition today. I need to go day-to-day and just try to stay positive."

Sharing the all-time Grand Slam title record with Roger Federer, Nadal has not been able to add to his 2009 championship at Melbourne Park, despite four trips to the final.

A string of injuries have hurt his chances in Melbourne through the years, which three-time Australian Open champion Mats Wilander put down to the relative punishment of honing his high-energy game on hardcourts in the off-season.

"It could be a combination of hard courts and practicing, needs more repetition and pushes himself hard," the Eurosport pundit says.

"This is Rafa Nadal, this is what he has done throughout his whole career and he is going to push himself to the limit."

Nadal hopes to last as long as he can in Australia, where people have regained most of their pre-pandemic freedom, after containing COVID-19.

Nadal had "no parties for one year already" at home in Spain.

"Here [people] are in a different situation. They are able to stay together.

"They are able to go out and have fun, and be a lot of people together in one place, so it's a different story than what we are facing.

"We dream about being back to that situation."

Rafael Nadal of Spain shakes hands with his opponent in his Men's Singles first round match against Laslo Djere of Serbia.
Rafael Nadal of Spain shakes hands with his opponent in his Men's Singles first round match against Laslo Djere of Serbia. Photo credit: Getty

Meanwhile. Thanasi Kokkinakis has completed an emotional victory over Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea - his first win at his home Grand Slam since 2015.

Kokkinakis, who beat Roger Federer at Miami in 2018, missed last year's Australian Open with glandular fever, which caused him to lose 10kg in weight.

Elbow and knee injuries have interrupted the 24-year-old's career, and he was forced to battle his way back through the secondary tours.

"Massive relief, just happy to get in front of the crowd again and play on that court," the Australian wildcard says, after his 6-4 6-1 6-1 win.

"It was a great experience. Had a lot of friends and family there watching.

"Just playing with that energy and that crowd, and being able to win, so much work behind the scenes, so much pain."

Once considered a top prospect, Kokkinakis reached a career-high ranking of 69 in 2015, but has slipped down to 267th, after skipping the entire 2020 season.

Kokkinakis received a congratulatory message from 20-time Grand Slam winner Federer, who is missing this year's tournament at Melbourne Park, due to fitness issues.

"Obviously, I didn't want to think about the finish-line, but I thought about it from the first set," says Kokkinakis, whose parents are Greek immigrants. "So at 5-0, I felt this massive roar and massive cheer from the crowd.

"I started tearing up, it was a bit of a soft moment. It was just so much stuff behind the scenes to get back to that point.

"Yeah, definitely got a bit emotional."

Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia celebrates after winning
Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia celebrates after winning Photo credit: Getty

A second-round clash against Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas awaits.

"I'm not sure what court we'll play on, I'm sure it will be a pretty big one," says the South Australian, who has sported 'A$6 Kmart special' black T-shirts on court, due to lack of sponsor.

"I'm hoping there is a decent crowd and can get rowdy, have some Greek fans, Aussie fans, and hopefully it's pretty loose."

Other men's results on Tuesday

Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas beat France's Gilles Simon 6-1 6-2 6-1 to reach the second round.

Italian ninth seed Matteo Berrettini sealed a hard-fought 7-6(9) 7-5 6-3 win over South African Kevin Anderson to move into the second round, where he faces Czech qualifier Tomas Machac.

Italian 16th seed Fabio Fognini beat Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert 6-4 6-2 6-3. 

Australian 21st seed Alex de Minaur moves into the second round with a 7-5 6-1 6-1 win over American Tennys Sandgren.

Moldova's Radu Albot, ranked 85, knocked out Spanish 12th seed Roberto Bautista Agut with a 6-7(1) 6-0 6-4 7-6(5) win.

Belgian 13th seed David Goffin crashed out, after a 6-3 4-6 7-6(4) 6-7(6) 3-6 loss to Australian wildcard Alexei Popyrin.

Russian fourth seed Daniil Medvedev advanced with a 6-2 6-2 6-4 victory over Canada's Vasek Pospisil.

Men's seventh seed Andrey Rublev of Russia secured a routine 6-3 6-3 6-4 victory over Germany's Yannick Hanfmann.