MELBOURNE—You can’t say Rafael Nadal isn’t speeding up. His last match at the Australian Open, the 2012 final against Novak Djokovic, lasted five hours and 53 minutes. His first one this year, against Bernard Tomic on Tuesday night, lasted 41 minutes.
In truth, it ended after about four minutes, when Tomic hit a serve at 30-15 in the first game and pulled up with a grimace. Three games later, he walked off court for medical treatment and came back with his upper leg taped, but he never stopped grimacing. He retired after losing the first set 6-4.
Despite Tomic’s struggles—the tape was so uncomfortable that he had to tear it off—the set was well-played. He was able to stay with Rafa from the ground, counter his topspin with flat drives, and create some entertaining rallies; each man finished with 13 winners. Nadal showed a few signs of tightness along the way, double faulting on his opening service point and flipping a couple of backhands into the net. But Rafa also played with control and margin; once Tomic showed he was injured and couldn’t run full out, Nadal was able to be aggressive without having to go for the lines. By the end of the set, he had found Tomic’s measure—at 4-4, he took one of Bernie’s best drives and flicked a forehand past him that touched down on the baseline. Nadal needed just one break point to put himself ahead.
The most interesting aspect of these 10 games was Nadal’s serve. He hit it crisply and smacked five aces, but he also used more slice than he normally does. It was effective, and pushed Tomic wider than he expected to go on his backhand side—Bernie won just six of 26 return points. We’ll see if Rafa keeps it up in the next round, when he faces an even younger Aussie, 17-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis.