MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Rafael Nadal was awake at 1 a.m., engrossed in Roger Federer’s third-round match at the Australian Open.
The top-ranked Nadal explained, after beating fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 on a warm Saturday afternoon, how he couldn’t sleep until after Federer had clinched a fifth-set super tiebreaker by winning the last six points to beat Australian John Millman overnight.
Federer was able to fight his way through to the second week on a day when 23-time major winner Serena Williams, defending women’s champion Naomi Osaka and 2018 winner Caroline Wozniacki all made surprising exits.
There was more to follow in a chaotic third round on Saturday, with women’s No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 6 Belinda Bencic also upset in straight sets.
For Nadal, the key was to keep things simple. He hadn’t lost to a fellow Spaniard since his first-round shocker here against Fernando Verdasco in 2016. That was the only time since 2006 that he hasn’t reached the quarterfinals or better at Melbourne Park, where he won the title in 2009 and has reached four finals since.
“My best match of the tournament so far without a doubt — a very positive thing. Super happy,” Nadal said. “Sorry for Pablo, he’s a good friend of mine. (But) for me, it’s great news I’m in the fourth round.”
Nadal changed into a bright pink cap and jacket after the match, accessorizing his pink shoes. A fan held up a sign telling Rafa he was “perfect in pink.”
Against Carreno Busta, he hit 42 winners and made just seven unforced errors. He didn’t face a break point and didn’t serve any double-faults.
“It’s true that when the conditions are a little bit warmer, the bounces are a bit higher, the ball is flying, it helps my game,” Nadal said. “Today I did very well with my serve — I started to hit some very good forehands down the line. That’s a key shot for me.”
He acknowledged to the crowd at Rod Laver Arena that he’d watched the Federer-Millman encounter, saying the see-sawing on-court emotions kept him gripped.
He’ll be watching a night match involving another Australian on Saturday, too, when Nick Kyrgios takes on 16th-seeded Karen Khachanov of Russia on Melbourne Arena.
Nadal and Kyrgios are unfriendly rivals — there’s been animosity on both sides — but the 19-time major winner doesn’t buy into the hype.
“Both players are great players. Nick always is excited to play here at home. Karen is a player with great potential,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy watching.”
One fourth-round meeting is already set, with 10th-seeded Gael Monfils advancing 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 6-3 over No. 256-ranked Ernests Gulbis to a match against fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem, who beat American Taylor Fritz 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4. No. 17 Andrey Rublev ousted No. 11 David Goffin 2-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) and is on a 15-match winning streak.
Two highly-ranked women who bucked the trend of upsets were Wimbledon champion Simona Halep and three-time major winner Angelique Kerber. Each said they’d learned to keep their heads down when there are clusters of big names dropping.
“I’m not focusing on other players — just focusing on myself,” Halep said after her 6-1, 6-4 win over Yulia Putintseva on Rod Laver Arena, the match after Pliskova lost 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-3) to 30th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. “It doesn’t matter who is winning, who is losing, I just have to do my job when I step on to court.”
Kerber had a 6-2, 6-7 (4-7), 6-3 win over Camila Giorgi.
In a later news conference, she almost laughed when asked if nervousness was contagious in the locker room when the top players start exiting.
“Every match starts from zero — doesn’t matter who against you play,” she said. “You have sometimes a little bit bad days, good days. So it’s more about caring yourself, working on your strengths and going for it. So it’s nothing about looking around.”
The left-handed Kerber next faces Pavlyuchenkova, who was a junior champion here 12 years ago when she beat Caroline Wozniacki in the final. They’re playing for a spot in the quarterfinals, a stage Pavlyuchekova has reached five times but never surpassed at the majors.
Having a bunch of top players missing from the second week doesn’t come into Pavlyuchekova’s thinking, either.
“I don’t focus so much on names any more. I’ve been on the tour for a while,” she said, when asked about the absence of Williams, Osaka and so on. “Those are really big names and great players, but it’s tennis. Nowadays, as you can see, surprises happen. I just try not to lose myself and be in the present, do what I have. I have the next match to play Angelique — why should I care about all the other names?”
Bencic, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open last September, was rolled 6-0, 6-1 in 49 minutes by 28th-seeded Anett Kontaveit, who will next play Iga Swiatek, the No. 59-ranked player from Poland who took out 19th-seeded Donna Vekic 7-5, 6-3.
A day after upsetting Osaka in the singles, 15-year-old Coco Gauff combined with Caty McNally for a win in the second round of women’s doubles. The American teenagers beat the eighth-seeded pair of Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs 6-3, 6-4.
In later action on Saturday, Alexander Zverev is back in the fourth round aafter beating 36-year-old Fernando Verdasco 6-2, 6-2, 6-4, and it means another $10,000 to the bush fire relief effort in Australia.
The 22-year-old German player has pledged $10,000 for every match win at the Australian Open, and his entire prize money if he wins the title at Melbourne Park this year. His best run at a major to date is to the quarterfinals at the French Open.
The seventh-seeded Zverev won the last four games after going down a break in the third set against Verdasco, who was contesting his 67th consecutive Grand Slam tournament — the second-longest streak for men behind Feliciano Lopez (72).
Verdasco’s best run at a major was to the semifinals in 2009, when he lost to Nadal in the second-longest match in tournament history that lasted 5 hours and 14 minutes.
Three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka, meanwhile, moved into the fourth round after 19th-seeded American John Isner stopped playing in the second set.
Wawrinka led 6-4, 4-1 when Isner was visited by a trainer at a changeover and then retired from the match.
Wawrinka won the Australian Open in 2014 for his first Grand Slam title. This is his seventh trip to the round of 16 in Melbourne and first since 2017.
On the women’s side, two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza defeated fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-2 in a third-round match.
Muguruza, who won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon the following year, took the first set in 23 minutes and conceded just 12 points in seven games.
“The first day I didn’t feel well at all, but I never throw in the towel,” she said. “I’m in the fourth round because of a big fight.”
Against Svitolina, a quarterfinalist at the last two Australian Open tournaments and a semifinalist last year at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Muguruza was dominant.
“Everything went quickly my way — yeah, I’ll take it,” she said. “I played a very good match. I managed to probably disturb her, and take the match to my side.”