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WATCH: Rafael Nadal's post-match press conference

The crux of a first-round match at a major is that while a loss puts you miles away from contention, a win only moves you an inch forward. And yet, as two-time Australian Open champions Victoria Azarenka and Rafael Nadal proved on the first day of this year’s tournament, one inch is plenty.

Sometimes an opener is reasonably routine. That was not the case for Vika or Rafa. It took the top-seeded Nadal three hours and 41 minutes to overcome a rapidly rising lefty, 38th-ranked Jack Draper, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1. And in a battle of the only two women in the field who’ve previously won this title, 24th-seeded Azarenka beat 2020 Aussie champ Sofia Kenin, 6-4, 7-6 (3).

Though Kenin finished last season ranked 235th, she reached the semis in Hobart last week, at last rekindling some of the fire that took her to the finals of two majors in 2020. Versus Azarenka, Kenin got off to a 3-0 lead in the first set and held a set point in the second. But while it was refreshing to see Kenin pose the questions that make her a compelling tactician, Azarenka was the one who came up with more answers.

“So I definitely had quite a few nerves,” said Azarenka. “I felt like my game wasn’t at the best today, but I was able to find a way to win, which is I think important to do, especially for me, I feel that mentally I stayed really strong and I kept looking for solutions.”

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Azarenka next will play 191st-ranked Nadia Podoroska for the first time. Following that, she could meet Madison Keys.

Azarenka next will play 191st-ranked Nadia Podoroska for the first time. Following that, she could meet Madison Keys.

As direct as Azarenka is when she wins matches, her career arc has hardly been linear. Her two title runs Down Under came many years ago, in 2012 and 2013. Ranked No. 1 for 51 weeks during that time, Azarenka appeared primed for many more majors. Instead, there have been gaps, ups and downs triggered less by on-court woes and more by life itself—injuries, parenthood, a complicated custody battle, a visa issue.

There also have come moments of resurgence. At the 2020 US Open, the 31-year-old took the tournament by a storm with a dazzling run to the finals. It was an effort marked by everything from an improved serve to an impressive win over Serena Williams to a new perspective about tennis and life. Yet only once since then has Azarenka reached a singles final.

Twelve months ago in Melbourne, Azarenka reached the round of 16, losing 6-2, 6-2 to fourth-seeded Barbora Krejcikova. To win three matches and lose to a younger player is the kind of result one associates with veterans nearing the end of a career. But to see Azarenka play so well versus Kenin was to be reminded of all that makes her not merely an aging star, but a legitimate contender. Movement and forceful groundstrokes, the backhand most of all, have long been assets. But when the serve is clicking, as it was versus Kenin, Azarenka takes even more control of the rallies. On Monday, Azarenka hit seven aces, saved six of seven break points and won 59 percent of her second serve points.

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Azarenka next will play 191st-ranked Nadia Podoroska for the first time. Following that, she could meet Madison Keys. That’s an appealing matchup, a significant opportunity for two longstanding contenders to advance several feet forward.

But as expected, the 33-year-old Azarenka refuses to look too far ahead.

“Mentally, after you haven't achieved your expectation, what you wanted, it’s kind of a hard hole to recover from,” she said. “That is something that I’m actually learning myself. So I would say I think of myself like taking baby steps and really work on intention and what I want to do.”

Much like Azarenka, touchstone attributes as footwork, tenacity, recovery and rebirth have long been central plot points in Rafa’s saga. Recall Nadal’s Australian Open title run last year, which came after he had played only two matches in the second half of 2021. More recently, Nadal has gone 1-5 since the US Open, his attention focused on life as a father, and his continued struggles with an abdominal injury suffered during Wimbledon.

“Of course, when you break the abdominal twice, takes a while to recover the confidence on the movement, no?” Nadal said after the Draper match. “I mean, was difficult for me for a few months to put the ball high and go for the ball. When you break the abdominal, you start to protect yourself, putting the ball more to the left, trying to not do the movement, the full movement, with the abdominal, no? Is something I needed to work hard to come back to the normal serve. I think I did it. I need to keep improving in all the aspects of my game.”

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It took the top-seeded Nadal three hours and 41 minutes to overcome a rapidly rising lefty, 38th-ranked Jack Draper, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1.

 It took the top-seeded Nadal three hours and 41 minutes to overcome a rapidly rising lefty, 38th-ranked Jack Draper, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Nadal toiled hard versus Draper. Hardly discouraged by dropping a tight first set, Draper swiftly went ahead 4-0 in the second and soon leveled the match. In the third, just when Nadal appeared ready to break things open—taking a 4-1 lead—Draper rallied to 4-all. In the fourth set, Draper broke Nadal in the opening game. But as he has throughout his entire career, Nadal took charge when it mattered most, winning the next and final six games.

Next for Nadal is Mackenzie McDonald, who took more than four hours to beat Brandon Nakashima by an epic score of 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 1-6, 6-7 (10), 6-4. It’s likely that Nadal hardly cares about that data, or that the one time he and McDonald played, at Roland Garros in the fall of 2020, Nadal won 6-1, 6-0, 6-3. Or even about such notions as a title defense or even a deep run in Melbourne.

Instead, he’s likely focused on all that matters to a tennis player—immediate process and performance.

“And victory helps, I can’t lie you on that,” said Nadal. “When you win matches, you are more relax. You are more confident.”

Should you ever wish to deeply study the concept of living in the present, go to a Grand Slam tournament and witness a tennis player. In particular, Vika or Rafa.