Nadal maintains record bid as Djokovic races to be fit

MELBOURNE (AFP) – Rafael Nadal stayed on course for a record 21st Grand Slam title at a fan-free Australian Open yesterday.

As Victoria state went into a snap, five-day lockdown to curb a coronavirus outbreak, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev all reached the last 16 at an eerily empty Melbourne Park.

But world number one Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and holder of a record eight Australian Open titles, faced a race to be fit for his third-round clash today.

The Serb, who said he tore an abdominal muscle during Friday’s five-set win over Taylor Fritz, skipped training and sought medical advice and treatment yesterday. He is scheduled to play Canada’s Raonic today.

The loss of Djokovic, 33, would be another blow for the tournament, reducing the men’s ‘Big Three’ to just one – Nadal – with Roger Federer already sidelined by injury.

Spain’s Rafael Nadal serves to Britain’s Cameron Norrie during their third round match a the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia. PHOTO: AP

Nadal, who has his own injury concerns with a stiff lower back, faced down his toughest test so far with a 7-5, 6-2, 7-5 win over British fellow leftie Cameron Norrie.

“The feeling is completely different – nobody wants this,” said Nadal, referring to the 15,000 empty seats that faced him at Rod Laver Arena.

Nadal, 34, will next play colourful Italian Fabio Fognini, who dismissed Australia’s Alex De Minaur in straight sets.

Players were ordered into a biosecure “bubble” during the lockdown, just the latest coronavirus disruption for a tournament that was pushed back three weeks to allow for quarantines.

The Australian Open, the biggest international sports event so far this year, is seen as a test case for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which are scheduled to start in July after a year’s delay.

As play unfolded in the empty arenas, former world number one Karolina Pliskova had a racquet-smashing tantrum en route to a 7-5, 7-5 defeat by fellow Czech Karolina Muchova.

Ukrainian fifth seed Elina Svitolina beat Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 6-0, and Russia’s men’s fourth seed Medvedev overcame buttock pain and a mid-match lapse in his 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-0 win over Filip Krajinovic of Serbia.

“It’s a different atmosphere, different vibe,” said Greek world number six Tsitsipas, after his 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over Mikael Ymer.

“But if I can win my next matches, the crowd will be back. It’s just five days, and I’ll be happy to see them back.”