Australian Open: Rafael Nadal starts strong - Three things learned from the Spaniard's first round win

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Rafael Nadal fans probably gave a huge sigh of relief after they watched the world No. 1 ease past Victor Estrella Burgos 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in the Australian Open first round on Monday.

After withdrawing from Abu Dhabi and Brisbane to delay his start to the 2018 season, there was cause for concern that the Spaniard hadn’t fully recovered from the knee injury that forced him to pull out of the ATP Finals last November (he only played his first match there).

But it’s fair to say that most of those concerns dissipated following a stellar opening win for Nadal on Rod Laver Arena on Monday night.

He next takes on Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer.

Here are three things learned from Nadal’s success over Estrella Burgos…

KNEE SEEMS FINE

Against a grinder like Estrella Burgos, Nadal looked comfortable running down balls, showcasing a great all-court game against the Dominican, who barring that one service game in which he broke Nadal while he was serving for the second set, barely troubled the world No. 1.

Reassuring everyone in press, Nadal said after his match when asked how his body was feeling: “Good. If I don’t feel myself ready, I will not be here.”

Asked about the knee specifically, the Mallorcan said: “No problems.”

SWEET SERVING

According to the Australian Open website statistics, Nadal’s average first serve speed was 199km/hr against Estrella Burgos. That is US Open 2010-level serving from the Spaniard. He also landed 73 per cent of his first serves in and won a remarkable 67 per cent of the points on his SECOND serve (77% on his first).

If he serves like that throughout the fortnight, on a fast surface like Melbourne, he could save himself lots of energy and spend less time running on that recently-injured right knee.

HITTING CLEAN

For the most part, and for someone who started his preseason training later than usual to recover his knee, Nadal was hitting the ball clean, firing 28 winners during his 94-minute win. His down-the-line shots were finding the lines nicely and despite his 11 forehand unforced errors, he should be pleased with how his first match in two months unfolded.

THE NUMBERS GAME

Nadal is now 52-11 win-loss at the Australian Open.

He is bidding to become only the sixth player in the Open Era to win the Australian Open after winning the US Open in the previous season.

Nadal is bidding to win his second Australian Open title and become the first man in the Open Era – and only the third man in history – to win each of the four Grand Slam titles twice. Roy Emerson and Rod Laver are the only players to have won each Grand Slam on two or more occasions.

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Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens crash out of Australian Open

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World number five Venus Williams and US Open champion Sloane Stephens were high-profile casualties on day one of the Australian Open Monday, but Roland Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko survived.

Williams, who lost in the final to sister Serena last year, was stunned by Swiss star Belinda Bencic, fresh from winning the Hopman Cup with Roger Federer.

The seven-time Grand Slam winner, in her 77th major, struggled against a player who had never before beaten her to go down 6-3, 7-5 and deprive the tournament of one of its biggest names.

It is the first time since 1997 that there will be neither of the Williams sisters in the second round, with Serena not playing after giving birth to her first child.

“I would like to have played someone easier,” said Bencic.

“When I was a little girl watching on TV I would never imagine I would play them (the Williams).”

Also out of the opening Grand Slam of the year is American big-hitter CoCo Vandeweghe, a semi-finalist last year at Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadow.

She slumped out to Hungary’s Timea Babos 7-6 (7/4), 6-2.

Stephens’ poor run since winning at Flushing Meadows in September continued, with the 13th seed crashing out to Chinese number two Zhang Shuai, who made the last eight two years ago.

The frustrated American put in an error-strewn performance on an overcast and windy Melbourne day and has now not won in seven matches.

“I’m not going to get too down,” said Stephens after her 2-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-2 defeat.

“I’m just going to stay positive and keep working to get back in the best shape and best place possible to do well for my next tournaments.”

There was better luck for Ostapenko, who saw off Francesca Schiavone 6-1, 6-4.

The seventh seed raced through the first set on Rod Laver Arena against the veteran Italian who was bizarrely wearing a back brace on the outside of her shirt.

She was 4-1 down in the second before knuckling down to race home and a second round clash with China’s Duan Yingying.

“I knew before the match that it’s not going to be easy. She’s very experienced player and she’s very long time on tour,” said the Latvian.

“I knew I had to play really aggressive and stay very consistent.”

Also into the next round with a straight sets win was German 12th seed Julia Goerges, who won the lead-up Auckland Classic and is now on a 15-match unbeaten streak having ended 2017 with victories at Moscow and Zhuhai.

World number two Caroline Wozniacki, who lost to Goerges in that New Zealand decider, plays later Monday, along with men’s top seed Rafael Nadal.

Sixteen-time Grand Slam champion Nadal insists he is feeling fine despite struggling with a knee injury and ready to go deep at an event that he has only won once — in 2009 — among his string of major triumphs.

This is despite a chequered lead-up that prevented him playing a warm-up tournament for the first time ever ahead of the opening Grand Slam of the year.

“It’s a new situation for me. But I feel good,” said the 31-year-old, who first played at Melbourne Park in 2004.

Nadal, who faces the Dominican Republic’s Victor Estrella Burgos in a night match on Rod Laver Arena, lost an epic Australian Open final last year to Roger Federer, who gets his campaign under way on Tuesday.

Fellow multiple Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic, seeded 14, also starts on Tuesday, along with former world number one Maria Sharapova and top seed Simona Halep.

Among men safely through to the next round are 31st seed Pablo Cuevas and Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov.

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Australian Open: Simona Halep's top seeding, Caroline Wozniacki's shot at No. 1 and other stats from women's draw

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Leader of the pack: Simona Halep.

On the eve of the 2018 Australian Open, we take a look at Seven Deadly Stats from the women’s draw.

1 – Simona Halep is the No. 1 seed at a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.

2 – of Maria Sharapova’s three first round Grand Slam losses came at the Australian Open (in 2003 and 2010). She is 47-3 in the opening rounds at the majors.

5 – players can challenge Halep for the No. 1 ranking this fortnight: Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko and Karolina Pliskova.

6 – years since Wozniacki was last ranked No. 1 in the world. She must reach at least the semi-finals to have a chance of replacing Halep at the top of the rankings after the Australian Open. It would be the longest gap between stints at No. 1 since the computer rankings were introduced in 1975.

9 – of this year’s top-16 seeds in the women’s draw did not feature in this seeding bracket in 2017.

47 – Agnieszka Radwanska assumes the title of having the longest active consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance streak with 47 straight participations (including this year’s Australian Open). Jelena Jankovic saw her streak come to a halt at 56 due to her withdrawal from the 2018 Australian Open due to a back injury.

77 – Venus Williams will be appearing in her 77th Grand Slam main draw this fortnight, the most in the Open Era

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