Commentary

Rafa rules once again

World No. 1 overcomes foot scare to blast his way past Gael Monfils in Australia

Updated: January 18, 2014, 5:30 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson and Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com

Everything was going swimmingly for Rafael Nadal.

And then, at 2-1 in the second set, after he had carved up Gael Monfils in the first, Nadal backpedaled to hit a forehand and, after taking a vintage Rafa rip, came up noticeably limping.

An awkward silence quickly descended on Rod Laver Stadium. Nadal was clutching his right foot and hobbled to the changeover chair and sat there for a few moments in some distress.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal has yet to drop more than four games in any set so far in Australia.
And that was the only drama of the entire night. Nadal shook it off, then finished off Monfils, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open. Afterward, he told reporters that health indeed is everything.

"The tougher thing is the injuries, in my opinion, no," he said. "Mental part is very important. I think what makes the mental part very hard is we play lot of months. Lot of players are ready to compete well for all months, no, for every month. That makes the competition very difficult."

There was good reason to be concerned. Nadal, after all, has a long history of injury. He missed 7½ months after the 2012 Championships at Wimbledon with a knee injury. And before that, he:

• Pulled out of the London Olympics with another knee injury in 2012.

• Withdrew from the 2012 Sony Open semis against Andy Murray with a left knee injury.

• Limped through his 2011 quarterfinal Aussie Open match in a straight-sets loss against David Ferrer with a left pulled hamstring.

• Pulled out of the 2010 Aussie Open before his quarterfinal clash with Murray with a knee injury.

And we're only going back a little more than three years. His list of maladies dates back to 2004.

But Nadal looked every bit the player we saw win two Grand Slam events a year ago. He was on the court a little more than two hours and was never broken against Monfils. Nadal, who played only one set in his opener before Bernard Tomic retired, has won all seven sets he has played so far.

By all accounts, he's looking unstoppable, isn't he?

"No," Nadal said. "At the end, no one is unstoppable. Tonight I think I played a great match. Very happy the way that I played against a very tough opponent like Gael. So that makes the level that I played tonight better because was against tough opponent. Good player like Gael always very difficult to play against.

"That's it. Just one very good day. That makes me feel confident, but I am in fourth round. That's all."

More than any other Grand Slam, the Australian Open might be the one that defines Nadal's place in history. With a win, he'd have two titles at every major. Only the great Rod Laver can say that. Nadal also would tie Pete Sampras for second all time with 14 Slam titles, which would be three behind Federer.

At 27 years old, Nadal is approaching what is considered the line of demarcation in tennis.

Since 1990, only six players over 30 have won a Slam title. And, although Nadal has a few more years until he's there, there would appear to be a sense of urgency when we consider his history of health.

"Is true that is important to give me another chance here in Australia in the next couple of years starting for this one," Nadal said. "Win both, every Grand Slam twice, will be something really difficult. I going to try to do it in the next couple of years, but knowing that always is a big challenge."

But first things first. Nadal's next opponent, Kei Nishikori, is an exceptionally talented player.

"He's playing great," Nadal said. "Will be a tough one."

Make that no American men remaining

[+] EnlargeDonald Young
AP Photo/Andrew BrownbillDonald Young put on a good show, but it came to an end Saturday in Australia.
The last American male standing was a title more symbolic than technically correct, but Donald Young took pride it in all the same -- until a strained muscle hastened a disappointing 5-7, 6-1, 6-0 third-round loss to No. 16 seed Kei Nishikori.

"Sam [Querrey] and I both got to the third round, but I happened to play a day later, so it seemed a little better," Young said. "It's the first time for me to be the last American in the draw. I feel like there have been improvements. They're little, but they're improvements, and hopefully, if I can keep moving like this, it will get a lot better and stay consistent. That's the thing, staying consistent."

Young got off to a strong start, leading 5-2 on Nishikori's serve before the Michael Chang protégé won the final five games of the set. Young, a left-hander, said a strained left pectoral muscle he has felt since the Auckland tournament a week before Melbourne, flared up midway through the second set, and he called for a medical timeout after the set.

"I don't know what it was in kilometers, but it didn't look like my serve was going over 160," Young said. "That's pretty tough against someone like him. … But no real excuse, he played well, he beat me. I would have liked to be able to serve and play better, but the better player today, over the course of the whole match, won."

It was a discouraging start to the tournament for the American men after the highest ranked among them, No. 13 John Isner, lost in the first round to Martin Klizan. Jack Sock made it to the second.

"It's tough, the guys are getting better around the world," Young said. "All the Americans are working really hard, and some had tough draws. Jack [Sock] played Gael Monfils; Ryan [Harrison] played Monfils. The guys are good, no one is losing to scrubs. And for me to make it be the last one, I'm honored to have that this week, and I want to keep working harder so I can make it deeper and deeper in these big tournaments."

Quarterfinal clash set

In the tournament's second All-French clash, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeated Gilles Simon, who was weakened by a sprained ankle that he suffered a little more than a week ago and that nearly caused him to pull out of the Australian Open.

The 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2 victory for the No. 10 seed sets up an Australian Open rematch with Roger Federer, who prevailed in a five-set quarterfinal last year.

"For me, it's the possibility to take revenge because last year I lost against him," Tsonga said. "It's a good opportunity for me to play him again. And, you know, it's always nice to play against such a good player. The tournament continues for me, and I'm feeling good."

Tsonga, 29, who went on to reach the semis at the 2013 French Open before exiting in the second round at Wimbledon and missed the US Open with a knee injury, had lost five of his past six matches against top-20 opponents until defeating No. 18 Simon.

Tsonga has played Federer three times in Grand Slam tournaments, defeating him in the quarterfinals of last year's French Open and the 2011 Wimbledon.

"Today I didn't know if my opponent liked the inside-out forehand more or the backhand down the line or backhand crosscourt," said Federer, who defeated Teymuraz Gabashvili 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

"So sometimes I'm like, 'OK, too late. It was a winner.' With Jo Willy, it's going to be different. If he hits a winner, I know probably where he's going to go, what the percentage is. But then again, because he hits it so well and so consistently, that's what makes it hard.

"He's got a huge serve, which then is also is a huge part of the game, which increases the pressure or not on your own service games. He's a great mover. So, I mean, you just know what to expect, which is good for better tennis for both players."

They meet again

[+] EnlargeVictoria Azarenka
Paul Crock/AFP/Getty ImagesVictoria Azarenka didn't win over many fans with her timeout against Sloane Stephens in the 2013 Australian Open semifinals.
It was a good thing Victoria Azarenka seemed to conserve energy in her 6-1, 6-0 third-round victory over Yvonne Meusburger, which took all of one hour and featured 56 winners for Azarenka.

She would need it to dodge questions afterward about her upcoming fourth-round rematch with American Sloane Stephens.

In last year's Australian Open semifinals, Azarenka needed six match points to beat then-19-year-old Stephens, who had defeated a hobbled Serena Williams in the quarters. But it was Azarenka's medical timeout after Stephens broke her serve to pull to within 5-3 in the second set that drew the wrath of the usually congenial Aussie crowd.

When she came back on court, Azarenka broke Stephens' serve to win 6-1, 6-4. On Saturday, she was asked several times about the controversial win, answering each question in similar fashion.

"I have great memories of last year," she said. That's all I keep for me. Sloane is a great player, very tough competitor. She has a great record here. I feel like she improved so much.

"So, you know, I'm excited about that match. It's going to be tough. It only gets tougher from here. Every round, you know, is more challenging."

Loose lips …

Turns out they do sink ships.

For the first time since the outset of the Aussie, we don't have to talk about the temperature. Huzzah! Or do we?

With the longest heat wave to hit Melbourne in 100 years behind us, and with the soles of tennis players' shoes, vomit, sweat and tears scrubbed clean from the courts Down Under, the Australian Open's chief medical officer, Dr. Tim Wood, found a way to keep the fire alive.

In an effort to mitigate the effect the triple-digit heat had on the tournament, he said this to the BBC (warning, it's moronic): "We've evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope for eight hours under these conditions."

Did he really go there? Yeah, he did.

So many players have endured hardship. Jerzy Janowicz lived out of his car while he traveled between Challenger events. Serbian player Novak Djokovic used to hide in his grandfather's basement during the NATO bombing raids on Belgrade. We could go on and on.

But there's no one in recent memory who chased antelope to prepare for tennis. (Maybe if Rocky were a tennis player?) And to quip about people who were actually suffering…

Serena Williams was asked about it in her last postmatch news conference.

"I tell you this: I'm not equipped to answer that question," she said. "I'm going to leave it alone. I'm going to leave it alone."

Good call.

Golden boys

Other than adding Bobby Bryan Jr. to Team Bryan, the winningest doubles team in the world, Bob and Mike Bryan report that nothing much has changed since they completed a season in which the Wimbledon title gave them a "Golden Slam" and made them the first pair to hold all four major titles and the Olympic gold medal at the same time.

And that's a good thing.

"There's a lot of new teams … a lot of reshuffle jobs," said Mike, who, with his twin, defeated Robin Haase and Christopher Kas 6-3, 6-2 in a second-round match Friday.

The Bryans, whose pursuit of a calendar-year Slam was thwarted when they lost in the US Open semifinals to Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek in a rematch of the 2012 final, are six-time Australian Open champs and clinched the year-end No. 1 ATP doubles ranking for a record ninth time and fifth consecutive season.

"We want to start off with a bang and try to win this sucker," Mike said. "This is probably our most successful Slam. We're playing well. I think our main focus this year is play well at the Slams, finish No. 1, and have a good Davis Cup year. Those three things."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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