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Plot twist! – another of Rafael Nadal’s biggest obstacles gets picked off at the Australian Open

Rafael Nadal is now the highest-seeded player left in the top half of the men’s singles draw at the Australian Open, after Denis Shapovalov knocked off Alexander Zverev in three sets.

Nadal 2022 Australian Open Tennis – Australian Open – Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia – January 23, 2022 Spain’s Rafael Nadal celebrates winning his fourth round match against France’s Adrian Mannarino || 218680_0665

The 35-year-old Rafael Nadal continues to march in the direction of the 2022 Australian Open final, and his most dangerous rivals keep falling by the wayside. Before the tournament even started, Novak Djokovic’s deportation and subsequent withdrawal left a giant crater in the top half of the men’s singles draw, and on Day 7 the path for Nadal came a bit clearer as Alexander Zverev – a winner of the pair’s last two hard court clashes and three of their last four meetings overall – fell meekly to Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.

The upset of the world No 3, which represents Shapovalov’s first Top-5 win at a Grand Slam, leaves Nadal as the highest remaining seed in the top half of the draw. The 2009 champion, seeded sixth this year in Melbourne, will face 14th-seeded Shapovalov in the quarter-finals.

A 28-minute tiebreak, won by Nadal

Nadal fought past France’s Adrian Mannarino 7-6(14), 6-2, 6-2 to reach his 14th Australian Open quarter-final on Sunday, coming through an epic first-set tiebreak that lasted 28 minutes in which he needed to save four set points to survive. Eventually, the Spaniard converted his seventh set point and from there he quickly took command and raced away from the world No 69.

“Everybody knows how mental this [game is],” Nadal said on court after the match. “It’s a tough one, and after that crazy first set I think the break was so important at the beginning of the second. He had been playing some fantastic tennis during the whole tournament, winning against amazing players like Karatsev and Hurkacz.

“Today the first set has been super difficult, his ball was very difficult to control, very flat, very fast – I am very happy that I survived that first set without a doubt.”

It was a brilliant 81-minute stanza from Mannarino, who hit 19 winners to 17 for Nadal and earned the only break point of the set at five-all. But as happens so often, it was Nadal finding a way to win the truly critical points, and once he had a set and break under his belt, Mannarino began to suffer physically and could not manage to keep the rumbling Spaniard in check.

With his victory Nadal equals Aussie legend John Newcombe by reaching his 14th Australian Open quarter-final. Only Roger Federer (15) has more to his name.

Shapovalov snaps 17-match losing streak against the top-5

Nadal’s next opponent will be playing his first Australian Open quarter-final, but he looks dangerous, even if he is not experienced. Canada’s Shapovalov registered a surprisingly easy 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 triumph over Zverev to snap a losing streak against the top-5 that dated all the way back to the Canadian’s first big success on tour, when he topped Rafael Nadal at the Roger’s Cup as an 18-year-old in 2017.

The Canadian had never previously defeated a player ranked higher than 10 at a Grand Slam event. Since his 2017 triumph over Nadal, Shapovalov, now 22 years of age, has lost his last three to the Spaniard.

Zverev, one of the top favourites, falls short

Prior to the season Zverev had insinuated that the Big Three era had come to an end as he suggested that he himself was a member of a new dominant trio in men’s tennis that also included Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev.

“Before, there used to be always talk about Nadal, Federer and Djokovic — now the big titles were the Olympics, US Open, Turin (ATP Finals) and Wimbledon, and they were all won by Medvedev, Djokovic and me. I don’t expect it to be any different next year,” he told AAP in December.

His words may prove to be correct, but Shapovalov showed that there is a deep – and hungry – layer of talented players on the rise just below the established forces. Nadal, meanwhile, is in the process of reminding the world that he can never be counted out at the Grand Slams.

Nadal: I didn’t expect to be where I am

Looking ahead to his clash with Shapovalov, Nadal pointed out just how impressed he was with Shapovalov’s potential in 2017, when he was shocked by the teenager in the round of 16 at the Rogers Cup in Montreal.

“I mean, when I played against him, after the match I said he gonna be potential multi-Grand Slam winner,” Nadal recalled. “And I still think that if he’s able to keep improving, he will be a multi-Grand Slam winner, no? He has a lot of amazing things on his game, and his results says that. When he’s playing well, it’s very difficult to stop him. You can see today against a great player like Sascha, straight sets, if he’s able to play regular in terms of his level, yeah, gonna be a potential very high-ranking player.”

The Spaniard himself says he is thrilled to have an opportunity to play in the last eight of a major once again. He told reporters that he didn’t believe he was in good enough form to make it a few weeks ago.

“Gonna be a tough one for me,” he said of facing the Canadian. “But I am in quarterfinals, what to expect, no? I mean, is a match to try my best, to play at my highest level if I want to have chances to go through. And, yeah, I’m excited about it, honestly, no? I didn’t expect to be where I am weeks ago.”

A week after entering the draw with low expectations, Nadal has emerged as the favourite to reach the final, with a 21st major title suddenly in his sights.

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