Rafael Nadal’s bid for a record 21st men’s grand slam has continued apace as protege Carlos Alcaraz emerged as an Australian Open dark horse.
As Nadal, 35, swept aside qualifier Yannick Hanfmann to secure his 16th appearance in Melbourne Park’s third round, his 18-year-old compatriot blitzed Dusan Lajovic to reach the milestone for the first time.
World No.5 Nadal is the only player who can claim a record 21st men’s grand slam singles crown this month, amid Roger Federer’s injury-enforced absence and Novak Djokovic’s dramatic deportation.
A scratchy Nadal defeated gritty German Hanfmann 6-2 6-3 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena to secure a match-up with either 28th seed Karen Khachanov, who beat Benjamin Bonzi.
Pleasingly for Nadal, in his strong start to the Open, after claiming the Melbourne Summer Set title, he has shown no signs of lingering fitness issues from last month’s bout of COVID-19 or his 2021 injuries.
Alcaraz, the youngest player in the draw and often likened to a youthful Nadal, thrashed Lajovic 6-2 6-1 7-5.
In the process, he rocketed into sixth favourite for the title behind only Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jannik Sinner.
The 2021 US Open quarter-finalist is seeded at a slam for the first time and next faces Matteo Berrettini, who fought past American wildcard Stefan Kozlov 6-1 4-6 6-4 6-1.
In his only clash with Berrettini, Alcaraz beat the world No.7 in three sets in Vienna last year.
“I grew up since that match,” Alcaraz said.
“Well, all I can say is I’m going to have fun, I’m going to play my match, and let’s see what happens.”
A third Spaniard, 19th seed Pablo Carreno Busta, prevailed in a five-set thriller, beating Tallon Griekspoor 6-3 6-7 (6-8) 7-6 (7-3) 3-6 6-4.
Carreno Busta next faces Sebastian Korda, who outlasted Corentin Moutet in a four hour and 47 minute marathon, prevailing 3-6 6-4 6-7 (2-7) 7-5 7-6 (10-6).
No.3 seed Zverev comfortably accounted for Australian veteran John Millman 6-4 6-4 6-0 to tee up a third-round clash with qualifier Radu Albot, who earlier beat local wildcard Aleksandar Vukic in straight sets.
No.10 seed Hubert Hurkacz became the highest-ranked men’s player knocked out when he suffered a 6-4 6-2 6-3 loss to Adrian Mannarino.
No.14 seed Denis Shapovalov overcame a massive scare, beating Kwon Soo-woo 7-6 (8-6) 6-7 (3-7) 6-7 (6-8) 7-5 6-2 to tee-up a clash with Reilly Opelka.
Unheralded Serb Miomir Kecmanovic continued to cash in on Djokovic’s departure, beating American Tommy Paul 7-6 (9-7) 7-5 7-6 (10-8) to progress.
Kecmanovic was originally due to play Djokovic first-up but his countryman’s late deportation meant the 22-year-old instead beat lucky loser Salvatore Caruso, before backing up against Paul.
He will next play Italian 25th seed Lorenzo Sonego.
Image credit: ATP Tour