WATCH: Nadal spoke with Jim Courier after his opening-round win over Giron.

Rafael Nadal arrived to Rod Laver Arena in regal purple, the heir apparent in a three-way race to a 21st major title. With Roger Federer at home healing and Novak Djokovic sent home reeling, Nadal is not only the only former champion in the field, but also the the most accomplished and an obvious—if not immediate—favorite to win his first Australian Open title since 2009.

Where injuries and a recent COVID-19 diagnosis are keeping the Spaniard’s expectations low, his wealth of experience was on full display in his opening round encounter with Marcos Giron, dispatching the unseeded American, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.

The absence of his immediate rivals does put Nadal in a degree of unfamiliar territory: in 62 previous Grand Slam appearances, Federer has sat out eight major tournaments—all in the last five years, and mainly at Roland Garros—but Djokovic has only missed one since making his 2005 debut, the 2017 US Open Nadal went on to win.

Where the former No. 1 would have relished such circumstances at his peak, he came to Australia without the fuel his proverbial diesel engine typically requires.

"Every one is different, honestly, no?" he said of his many injury comebacks after the match. "Of course, when you are getting a little bit older, all the comebacks are tougher. This have been especially, well, difficult because is not only a comeback from an injury, it's a comeback trying to be back on the tour after almost two years playing not many events with the virus."

After a pandemic-impacted 2020 limited his schedule, Nadal shut down his 2021 season shortly after surrendering his Roland Garros crown to Djokovic—opting to heal a nagging foot injury and begin anew in 2022—and his off-season comeback in Abu Dhabi yielded a bout with COVID-19.

Undaunted, he strung together three solid wins to capture his 89th career title in Melbourne and took that momentum into his clash with Giron.


At 28 years old, the former UCLA standout overcame two hip surgeries to make a long-awaited ATP breakthrough. A third-round finish at Roland Garros and a Round of 16 run at the Rolex Paris Masters last fall showed the Giron at the peak of his defensive powers but the self-proclaimed ball machine lacked the firepower to unsettle Nadal on Monday, managing just 10 winners to 34 from the decidedly underrated No. 6 seed.

Though Giron threatened an 11th-hour comeback, Nadal would not be denied as he saved a break point to force a pair of errors and find himself easing into the second round in just under two hours.

"What really helps is to spend hours on court playing and practicing with the best players," Nadal explained of his progress. "I need time on the tour. Of course, playing official matches without a doubt, but at the same time practicing with the best players, too. That's what I need today to try to recover the level that I need to fight for the things that I want and be healthy. If that happens, I hope to keep having chances to keep going and fight for the things."

Awaiting him there could be another of 2022’s early ATP champions in Thanasi Kokkinakis, a hometown favorite who set aside his own lengthy struggles with injury to nab his first title in Adelaide. A wildcard In his 2014 Australian Open debut, Kokkinakis played Nadal, then ranked No. 1, in the second round.

Still a promising talent at 25, Kokkinakis never got a shot at the crown, where Nadal has been holding fast to his own despite an increasingly formidable offensive from Father Time. After an unequivocally divisive prologue to the fortnight, a night-session meeting between the two may be what unites the Aussie crowd.

As it turns out, they won't get it: Kokkinakis fell to Yannick Hanfmann in straight sets; the qualifier earned his first Grand Slam match win and will aim to acquit himself better than his last match with Nadal at the 2019 French Open—where he won just five games.


Around the Grounds…

Elsewhere on Day 1, No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini shook off a bout with illness to defeat an inspired American in Brandon Nakashima, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3. The Italian jokingly thanked his dose of Imodium for helping him over the finish line. Berrettini’s American onslaught continues in the next round when he faces Stefan Kozlov, who scored a Top 100 win as a 16-year-old but took until 23 to make his major main draw debut. Fresh off a slew of ATP Challenger victories last fall, Kozlov made quick work of Jiri Vesely, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, and will take on Berrettini for the first time.

Wimbledon semifinalist and ATP Cup champion Denis Shapovalov flirted with disaster as Serbia’s Laslo Djere threatened to force a fifth set, only for the Canadian to right the ship in the ensuing tiebreak, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3). Up next for the No. 14 seed is surging South Korean star Kwon Soon-woo, who denied Danish teenager Holger Rune his first Grand Slam match win after a brutally physical five-set encounter—one that saw Rune once again deal with painful leg cramps, just as he did against Novak Djokovic at the US Open.

Gaël Monfils and Alexander Bublik guaranteed a fireworks-filled second round when the two each edged through their opening rounds against Feredico Coria and Ernesto Escobedo, respectively. Monfils began the season with an 11th ATP win in Adelaide.