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Nadal revels in ‘special’ return to surge into fourth round

MELBOURNE (AFP) – Rafael Nadal dropped a set for the first time at this year’s Australian Open but played his best match since injury to overcome Karen Khachanov and steam into the fourth round yesterday.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion rolled into a two-set lead and was looking to sweep it in straight sets, before the Russian 28th seed hit back to take the third.

That stung the Spanish sixth seed into action as he broke early to power home.

Nadal won 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 in 2hr 50min in a late night match on Rod Laver Arena and will face either Russian 18th seed Aslan Karatsev or Frenchman Adrian Mannarino in the round of 16.

“It’s a very special week for me coming back from where I have been, every time I come back here to play is a very special thing,” Nadal told the crowd, a nod to the foot injury which ended his 2021 season in August.

Rafael Nadal celebrates his victory over Karen Khachanov in their third round match at the Australian Open. PHOTO: AP

“I had my best match so far without a doubt since I came back.

“I went through some very tough times in the last year and a half, but nights like this mean everything to me, that’s a lot of energy in my pocket to keep going, keep fighting every single day.”

The big-hitting Russian had no answers for the quality of Nadal’s shotmaking in the opening two sets, with Nadal looking in sparkling form after his health and injury concerns in the months leading up to the year’s first major.

Just when it looked as though Nadal was about to have an early night, Khachanov fought back to take the third set and stop the Spaniard’s momentum.

But Nadal bounced back with a break in the fourth set with a laser down-the-line backhand winner which prompted a screaming fist-pumping celebration.

It was all Nadal from there to take the match as he reached the round of 16 in Melbourne for the 15th time, and his 51st in Grand Slams.

Khachanov was Nadal’s first top-60 opponent of the new year and Nadal now leads him 8-0 in their meetings.