Australian Open 2021: Rafael Nadal ousts last British singles player, Cameron Norrie
Tsitsipas surges to match vs battle-worn Berrettini; Fognini impresses against de Minaur
At the start of the Australian Open, there were 17 left handers in the men’s singles draw. By the end of Day 6, with the fourth-round line-up completed, there would be just one left standing.
With the loss of Feliciano Lopez, Adrian Mannarino and Denis Shapovalov, the name of the remaining leftie in the draw would not be decided until the very last match of the third round, where No2 seed Rafael Nadal faced the only remaining Briton left in the singles draws, Cameron Norrie.
The odds, of course, were stacked heavily in Nadal’s favour. After all, the Spaniard had only once fallen short of the quarters in Australia since 2006, won the title in 2009, and went on to reach four more finals.
He is in Melbourne to pursue a record 21st Major, and could reach the fourth round for the 49th time in his 61st Major appearance. And although he had pulled out of the ATP Cup with a stiff back, he had hit the ground running with straight-forward, straight-sets wins this week.
Meanwhile fellow left-hander Norrie, ranked 69, was yet to reach the fourth round of a Major in 12 previous attempts, but he had looked full of confidence in beating friend and team-mate Dan Evans in the first round, despite the 40 or so disparity in their rankings. What is more, Norrie had never yet beaten a top-five player, yet he would test Nadal more thoroughly than anyone thus far in the tournament, keeping him on court for two and a quarter hours.
Nadal started with an ace, in the ongoing story of better and more aggressive serving from the Spaniard with each passing season. He continued with a love hold—indeed won the first six points—and worked a break chance, too, but Norrie held for 1-1 after a six-minute test.
He saved another to hold for 2-2, and Nadal was making a few uncharacteristic errors—perhaps the impact of cool evening conditions, perhaps the absence of any atmosphere: the noise of ball on racket echoed around the empty arena.
It gave Norrie an opening to break in the fifth game, but that served to intensify the Nadal game, the Spaniard broke back, and held with ease. Nadal then held to love for 6-5, and began forcing more errors from the British racket. Sure enough, he broke for the set, 7-5, though he had totted up considerably more errors than he would like, 16 of them.
They opened the second set with easy holds, before Norrie faced two break points in the fourth game. A long, hard rally, toe-to-toe with Nadal, held off the challenge in a fine passage of play from the Briton. But the momentum was moving to Nadal’s side of the court, and a love hold was followed by a love break, and another break sealed the set, 6-2, in just 33 minutes.
Nadal was getting the measure of the left-handed style of Norrie, and his body language was far more comfortable—the scowling irritability of the first set now the usual confident strut. Yet Norrie dug in to fend off two break points in a long second game.
The Briton was up against it in the sixth game, too, almost seven minutes and another break chance saved, 3-3. Meanwhile, Nadal held with ease, to love, and the pressure was straight back on Norrie.
The Briton continued to live with Nadal, holding to love for 5-5. But serving to save the match, Nadal upped the level, and Norrie could not live with him at the crucial moment. The Spaniard broke for 7-5 and the match, but Norrie could head off with head held high: He had pressed Nadal for long stretches of the match, and it earned the Spaniard’s praise afterwards:
“I think [he was] a good opponent. He’s brave. His serve worked quite well, especially the first serve. And then he has a very flat backhand, that today with the heavy conditions, ball was quite slow, court fast, helped him a little bit. And, yeah, I think he has a complete game.”
As for Nadal’s back:
“Today is better, yeah. First day I feel an improvement, and that’s the most important thing for me today, more than any other thing.”
He will need to be fully fit against No16 seed Fabio Fognini, who has scored four wins over Nadal in the past, including on the Spaniard’s beloved Monte-Carlo clay in 2019.
Fognini played 21-year-old Alex de Minaur, who had beaten two tough opening opponents in relatively short order, while the older man by a dozen years—and Fognini also underwent arthroscopic surgery on both ankles last May—had survived a four-hour second-round match. But it was the Italian who got the first break for a 5-3 lead in the first set. De Minaur broke straight back to love, but Fognini then worked set point, and took the advantage, 6-4.
On paper, he had won only one point more, but in practice, Fognini had looked the more aggressive, focused man. He carried that momentum to a break in the sixth game, and held to love hold, 5-2, and took a two-set lead, 6-3, after just an hour and a quarter.
He then got a quick break in the third, and another to go 4-1. An unusually calm and focused Fognini was making this a much easier and briefer contest than many had anticipated against the in-form No21 seed, de Minaur. Yet serving at 2-5, Fognini made errors on two match points, and the Aussie broke.
The errors continued from Fognini, and from 5-1 up, he was now having to hold serve at 5-4. But he did so with a final big serve, 6-4, and a huge roar to his box.
The stats were not as flattering as the tennis, too many errors compared with winners, but it was a valuable straight-sets win before regrouping to face Nadal.
In the same quarter, after his marathon test against Thanasi Kokkinakis in Round 2, No5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas had a much easier ride against Mikael Ymer—three hours shorter and with just six games dropped, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1.
The Greek notched up 27 winners, and although he conceded one break at the start of the third, it was an aberration. He quickly remedied it with three straight breaks in a 26-minute set.
Tsitsipas, who reached his first Major semi-final at this event in 2019, will next play No9 seed Matteo Berrettini, who had a gruelling three-tie-break test against another big man, No19 seed Karen Khachanov.
By the end, Berrettini was feeling every one of the 250 odd points in this long battle, finally edging it, 7-6(1), 7-6(5), 7-6(5). The Italian has played more than most men this season, fitting in Antalya before the ATP Cup, and this win took him to 8-2 so far, with four wins over top-20 players. But he needed a medical time out in the third set, and was bent double after the victory. He will need to recover fast if he is to have an impact on Tsitsipas.
In the top half, the two impressive Russians, No4 Daniil Medvedev and No7 Andrey Rublev, extended their winning ways, though for Medvedev it was a troubled affair that saw his coach leave his box after giving up a two-sets lead over Filip Krajinovic, the No28 seed. The Russian, though, went on to win his first five-set match in a Major, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-0—his 17th consecutive win.
Medvedev will next play Mackenzie McDonald who beat Lloyd Harris, 7-6 (7), 6-1, 6-4.
Rublev, winner of five titles last year, beat Lopez 7-5, 6-2, 6-3, to go 7-0 this season, and will now play Casper Ruud, who beat Radu Albot, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.