Rafael Nadal was forced to work hard early in his much-hyped clash with flammable Italian Fabio Fognini, before eventually doubling down with some blistering play on an equally hot Rod Laver Arena.
The Spaniard booked his 43rd appearance in a grand slam quarter-final after dispatching the 16th seed 6-3 6-4 6-2 in two hours, 16 minutes.
Fognini notably had Nadal’s measure at grand slams entering the match, having stunned the tennis world with a five-set comeback victory at the US Open six years ago.
However, Nadal appeared to play without any lingering back tightness, and the previously unfriendly match-up was no obstacle as he continued his pursuit of a record-breaking 21st grand slam title.
“Every match, when you go on court, in the round of 16 against a great player like Fabio, you’ve got to worry every moment,” Nadal said post-match.
“But at the same time you can’t expect to go on court and not have problems during the match, facing these kinds of players.”
Nadal raced out to a 3-0 advantage as his lassoing groundstrokes got the better of his opponent, before some inspired shotmaking off both wings – and a cat and mouse rally that sent the Spaniard racing forwards and backwards – got him back on serve.
However, Nadal slammed the door shut again, grinding to 5-2 despite his opponent hitting five more winners for the set.
The Italian rescued himself from three set points in an 11-minute ninth game. But with Nadal on serve, he had no answers as the Spaniard’s looping serve guided him to a one-set lead.
Fognini turned the tables early in the second set, leaping to a two-game advantage as the Spaniard’s serve went awry. But despite Nadal punching his racquet in frustration, the Italian ceded the lead immediately.
From there, Nadal ran away with 10 of the last 12 games of the match.
Some brilliance hinting at what could have been if Fognini stood firm, including one rally that showed off each player’s arsenal of tricks – lob, drop shot, improvisation, smash – were only few and far between as Nadal’s athleticism shone through.
“I’m happy that the back is holding better, so tomorrow’s going to be an important day of practice,” Nadal said.
The Spanish second seed will face either fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas or ninth seed Matteo Berrettini for a spot in the final four.
Elsewhere, Daniil Medvedev raced through to the quarter-finals with a comprehensive 6-4 6-2 6-3 victory over American Mackenzie McDonald, setting up a tantalising clash with countryman Andrey Rublev.
Rublev, who has made three straight slam quarter-finals, had an easier time after Norwegian opponent Casper Ruud retired hurt after two sets.
Red, white and true blue – Americans steal the show
Jessica Pegula has spent her injury-plagued career aspiring to step out of the imposing shadows of her billionaire parents and build her own legacy.
Prior to 2021, she had never won a single match in Melbourne. She had struggled to build momentum after a run of hip and knee ailments.
She even mulled giving up the sport for good as she eyed off a career as a skincare and health food restaurant entrepreneur.
“I think more when I was younger, it was more like I wanted to make a name for myself. Then I realised as I got older I should embrace the whole family aspect of it instead,” Pegula said of her family’s legacy last week.
But, she’s continued notching up the stunning firsts on a career-defining fortnight in Melbourne, overcoming fifth seed Elina Svitolina 6-4 3-6 6-3 to record her first top-10 win and first grand slam quarterfinal berth.
Pegula, the daughter of Buffalo Bills (NFL) and Sabres (NHL) owners Kim and Terry (who are worth a cool $US5 billion – that’s $6.4 billion), had already defeated Victoria Azarenka, Sam Stosur and Kristina Mladenovic for the loss of 13 games to reach the round of 16.
And the world No.61 ran out of the blocks early, showing the gutsy, line-licking play that already saw her dispatch three credible opponents without dropping a set.
The American backed up a 79 per cent first-serve percentage and ability to dictate play with her skidding groundstrokes by venturing to the net 11 times in the first set, finding success on 10 occasions.
Having secured the lone break, Pegula took the opener after a sublime 31-shot rally where she went toe-to-toe with the counterpunching Ukrainian from the backcourt.
However, she came unstuck in the next set as her shots became erratic, allowing the steely Svitolina to race ahead with two breaks of serve – enough of an advantage to push the match to a deciding set.
From there, the American roared back to life, winning nearly half of all points on return in the final set, getting the vital break with a pinpoint drop shot and holding her nerve in the final gut check.
“I knew that I had to play really smart. I was starting to overhit in the second. I know she was staying pretty far back. It’s a good match-up for me but it’s also tough because she’s going to sit back and take my pace fine,” she said.
“See you next round Jen B”, Pegula wrote on the broadcast camera after her stunning win – a reference to countrywoman Jennifer Brady.
Brady, who made the semi-finals in Melbourne two years ago, then fulfilled her part of the deal with a comprehensive 6-1 7-5 victory over Croatian 28th seed Donna Vekic in the following match.
The 22nd seeded American had to overcome a hobbled Vekic and some wobbles in the second set before reprising the form that pushed Naomi Osaka all the way in a titanic three-set struggle at Flushing Meadows last year.
Brady hit 22 winners to outweigh her 19 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Vekic’s troublesome knee could be observed in her lamentable 17-37 ratio.
“That was a really tough match,” Brady said post-match.
“I was getting ahead of myself [in the second set]. I was able to break and then serve probably my best game in the end.”
Dylan Alcott reaches seventh consecutive AO final
Six-time Australian Open quad wheelchair singles champion Dylan Alcott will be bidding to extend his title-winning streak in Melbourne to seven after winning through to the decider on Margaret Court Arena.
Alcott overcame slow starts that handed plucky 18-year-old Dutchman Niels Vink early breaks in both sets, before showing his grand slam-winning experience to book a finals berth 6-4 6-3.
Alcott admitted he struggled without a vocal Melbourne crowd. The 11-times grand slam winner is usually seen with an army of boisterous fans in tow during the Open’s second week.
“I love to talk and I play my best when I do talk and when the crowd’s here I do get pumped, and early my energy wasn’t there,” Alcott said.
“I might’ve looked like an idiot sometimes but that’s what I have to do to get myself up.”
The local hero was flummoxed by his younger opponent’s ability to return his serve and command points with his forehand early, falling behind a break immediately and then navigating a seven-deuce game.
But after overcoming that early hurdle, three consecutive return winners brought Alcott back on serve, and tapped some remarkable defensive moves to eventually race ahead in the opening set.
The following stanza was a near-mirror image early as Vink again looked to pounce on any short balls, pushing his more experienced opponent behind the baseline.
Again, Alcott showed the mettle that’s proven such a winning formula through his career, and sealed up the match with a trademark cry of “Come on, baby!”.
Kyrgios mocks Djokovic’s ‘heart-throwing’ gesture
Australian firebrand Nick Kyrgios continued to fuel his bad blood with world No.1 Novak Djokovic after mocking the Serb’s ‘heart-throwing’ post-match gesture on Sunday.
Walking out on Margaret Court Arena with doubles partner and fellow Australian arriviste Thanasi Kokkinakis, both attempted to play up to the sea of empty blue seats with some over-the-top histrionics.
Then, Kyrgios – who only days earlier lost to third seed Dominic Thiem in a heartbreaking five-setter – made a move not lost on keen-eyed watchers.
With his hands cupped towards his chest, the Australian pushed them out to the stands numerous times, and doubled down again after placing his racquet bag on the benches.
Post-match, Kyrgios said the gesture was all about “bringing the love” to a tournament that had the life sucked out of it by a citywide lockdown.
“Just feeling the love. Just trying to spread the good word of the celebration. Everyone loves that celebration. It’s well-liked,” Kyrgios said.
“We’re just having some fun. Novak, I’m sure, doesn’t like me and we both have respect for each other, but I don’t like him at all, so it’s fun.”
Unsung Aussie defeats world No.4 Kenin
How’s this for a result?
Unranked 18-year-old Australian Olivia Gadecki pulled off by far the most impressive victory of her fledgling career in the Phillip Island Trophy, held concurrently at Melbourne Park.
Her unlucky opponent? World no.4 Sofia Kenin.
In one of the more remarkable performances seen in the Open era, the young Queenslander capitalised on an underperforming Kenin – who was bundled out in the second round of the Australian Open last week – to pull off a 6-2 6-7 6-4 victory.
Gadecki is the first unranked teenager to overcome a top 10 player since a then-15-year-old Mirjana Lucic Baroni defeat Amanda Coetzer in 1997.
The 18-year-old had never faced a player ranked inside the top 200 prior to 2021.
And she had only one word to describe her performance, in which she sent down 12 aces, and whallopped 44 winners to 33 unforced errors.
“I definitely played unreal,” Gadecki said.
“As soon as that match was finished, I was so happy that I even started crying. I’ve never felt this way before, either.”