Claiming his first Grand Slam title at age 19 and becoming known as the “Raging Bull” as he charged on to win 13 more, Rafael Nadal’s fighting spirit has never been in doubt.
But translating that spirit into big wins has been a challenge of late.
Entering Australian Open 2017, the Spaniard had lost three consecutive five-setters: to Lucas Pouille at the 2016 US Open, Fernando Verdasco at last year’s Australian Open and Fabio Fognini at the 2015 US Open.
So Nadal’s fighting third-round win over fast-rising German Alexander Zverev, achieved over a gruelling four hours and five minutes, couldn’t have been more welcome.
“Obviously that is an important result for me,” said Nadal after the 4-6 6-3 6-7(5) 6-3 6-2 win. “I lost the last couple of ones, matches in the fifth. So is important for me to win a match like this, (when I was) losing two sets to one. (I’m) very happy.”
Nadal will be hoping that no such marathon is required in the fourth round against Gael Monfils, whom he leads 12-2 in their head-to-head record. The Frenchman’s two wins have both been in the season-opening event in Doha, Qatar – although it’s an anomaly that hasn’t occurred since 2012.
Last registering a win over Monfils to win the Monte Carlo title in 2016, Nadal notes the improvements that the world No.6 has made since then.
“(It’s) going to be a big, big match,” said the Spaniard. “Very tough one. I need to play my best.”
Nadal is of course right to be wary. While the acrobatic Monfils has long shown his major-winning potential – the AO2004 boys’ title was among three junior Slams he claimed that year – he also has a history of combining impressive wins with some puzzling losses.
Showcasing a more serious approach in 2016, Monfils was a semifinalist at the US Open and at age 30 and made a long-awaited debut in the ATP World Tour Finals. An improved serve helped the Frenchman manage his one blip at Melbourne Park this year, a dropped set against Alexandr Doglopolov in the second round.
But if Monfils is feeling confident at Melbourne Park, Nadal can arguably feel more confident still – particularly given the physical dominance he maintained over an opponent 11 years his junior in the third round.
“I worked a lot during all December to have the chances to compete well this these kind of moments,” said the 30-year-old Nadal.
“Even if I start the match with some nerves, I think I was able to came back well.”
It’s particularly encouraging after the Spaniard’s injury-riddled 2016, in which a wrist problem forced his withdrawal from the French Open and absence from Wimbledon.
Assured in both his health and his ability, Nadal is determined to maximise the opportunity to reach a first Grand Slam quarterfinal since the 2015 French Open. He considers his long match against Zverev as no obstacle to success.
“It doesn't matter how you arrive to the second week. If you are not injured, the most important thing is (to) be there,” he said.
“I did. I won three great matches. Especially this last one is a very important one for me.
“I hope to be ready. As I say before, no, my body was good during the whole match. Let's see how I wake up tomorrow. But I believe that I'm going to be fine.”
Serena Williams will be similarly buoyed as she takes a 2-0 record into her fourth round against Barbora Strycova. The most recent of those wins was at Wimbledon in 2012, when Serena allowed the Czech just six games in their first round.
“She's super fit. She has a good game. She's very aggressive, so that would be nice to play,” Serena said of her world No.16 opponent. “I don't have anything to prove in this tournament here. Just, you know, doing the best I can.”
As a six-time champion, Serena can certainly hope for plenty of crowd support – and so too will Nadal if the Spaniard faces another epic fight. The good-natured Rafa was quick to note the difference that it made in his battle against Zverev.
“Is always special play in this court,” he said. “I feel the support of the crowd. For me that means a lot.
“Just that fact gives me a lot of positive energy and a lot of motivation to keep going and (to) keep fighting every day.”
An Australian Open quarterfinal is a place Serena Williams has been 10 times before, but it’s an eighth semifinal that’s more temptingly in sight. In two matches, Barbora Strycova hasn’t claimed a set over the world No.2 – it’s a trend that will likely continue when they meet at Rod Laver Arena on Monday.
Dominic Thiem and David Goffin not only share a close friendship, but close contests too. Goffin has the 4-3 edge in their head-to-head record but Thiem won their last match at the 2015 French Open. Their fourth-round clash is a re-match of the third round in 2016 when Goffin was the four-set victor. History tells us that the meeting between No.8 Thiem and No.11 Goffin is one that will be contested in both high spirits and to a superb standard.
Karolina Pliskova was near flawless until her third-round clash against Jelena Ostapenko, where she fought back from the brink to seal a 10-8 victory in the third. Now the 2017 Brisbane champion faces an inspired fourth-round opponent in Daria Gavrilova, who thrives before her home crowd. She also has a history of wins over big-name opponents; in 2016, Dasha’s victims included two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova (twice) and world No.1 Angelique Kerber.