Coming in cold, Nadal finds form quickly at Australian Open

Coming in cold, Nadal finds form quickly at Australian Open
Spain's Rafael Nadal wipes the sweat from his face as he serves to Australia's James Duckworth against during their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal has missed a lot of tennis since last September. He hasn’t missed a beat.

The No. 2-seeded Nadal had a 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 win over Australian wild-card entry James Duckworth on Monday in the first round of the Australian Open, his first match back on Rod Laver Arena since he had to retire during his quarterfinal match last year.

The 17-time major winner hasn’t played since retiring from his semifinal at the U.S. Open because of a knee injury. He had surgery on his right ankle in November, and withdrew from a tune-up tournament in Brisbane earlier this month because of a muscle strain in his thigh, mainly as a precaution, to ensure he’s fit for the season-opening major.

“The doctors didn’t allow me to go on court,” he said, “even if I wanted.”

He really was coming in cold.

“Not easy to come back after a lot of months of competition, especially against a player playing super aggressive every shot,” Nadal said. “It’s very difficult to start after an injury — I know it very well.

“So that’s an important victory because is the first victory since a while, and at the same time, because that gives me the chance to be on court again.”

Wearing a sleeveless top, he showed no signs of any issues against Duckworth. His only hiccup came when he served for the match in the ninth game of the third set and was broken. He returned the favor quickly, though, to seal his spot in the second round.

Nadal has only lost twice in the first round at Grand Slams — to Steve Darcis at 2013 Wimbledon, and to Fernando Verdasco here in 2016 — and didn’t show signs of being at risk this time. He’ll play another Australian, Matthew Ebden, next.

On a day when an injured Andy Murray likely played his last match at the Australian Open in a stirring five-setter — his first first-round loss at a Grand Slam tournament in 11 years — Nadal was circumspect about his progress.

Murray has announced plans to retire this year because of the constant pain in his right hip. Injuries have forced Nadal to take extended breaks throughout his career and his high-energy style means he’s being more selective about when and where he plays.

“My plan is wake up and see how I feel,” the 32-year-old Nadal said. “I am working about the personal feelings of every day — adapt our practice every day.

“So nothing new when you have comebacks, you need to do it that way, and worked well all my career for me that way.”

Nadal spoke late last year about the devastation caused by the deadly flooding on the Spanish island of Mallorca.

A torrential rainstorm on Oct. 9 caused flash flooding that left a trail of destruction and killed 13 people.

Nadal, who is from Mallorca, knew some of the victims and said he’s had to be philosophical about the tragedy.

“I know the real life, how tough can be,” he said. “The world is suffering. Not only with this, with wars, with terrible things that’s going on.

“There are families that lost almost everything. But I’m happy that all the island was together helping each other, and at some point, we receive huge support.

“Human losses can’t repair at all. But the rest of the things, we are getting there.”

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