By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Hours after reigning champion Novak Djokovic crashed out of the Australian Open on Thursday, Rafael Nadal raised hopes of filling the power vacuum after demolishing Marcos Baghdatis 6-3 6-1 6-3 to reach the third round.
Djokovic loomed as a potential semi-final opponent for Nadal but the Serb’s five-set upset by wildcard Denis Istomin shook up the draw and left the Spaniard as the sole grand slam champion in the bottom half.
Nadal has had two lean years at the majors, but on the same Rod Laver Arena where Djokovic fell to Istomin, the 14-times major champion showed enough of the old passion and firepower to suggest he may yet go deep in the second week at Melbourne Park.
“What Novak did here is just amazing,” said Nadal, paying tribute to the fallen ‘Big Four’ colleague who edged him in an epic for the 2012 title, the longest grand slam final played.
“Six victories here, six titles. For a lot of years he has been in the semi-finals, finals, and winning here. So it’s normal then (to lose). It’s not possible to be every time in
Nadal needed only two hours and 13 minutes to defeat Cypriot Baghdatis, whose run to the 2006 final as an unseeded 20-year-old is part of Australian Open folklore.
The 31-year-old Baghdatis saved two match points but Nadal closed out the one-sided contest with a smoking cross-court forehand, his 32nd winner for the match, and punched the air in triumph as the terraces roared.
Nadal, 30, faces German talent Alexander Zverev next, a player tipped for a big future in the game.
Nadal praised the 24th-ranked 19-year-old, who upset three-times grand slam champion Stan Wawrinka last year to win his maiden ATP title in St. Petersburg.
“He is a great player, one of the best players of the world, without a doubt, today,” the Spaniard said.
“He’s a player that is for sure one of the next grand slam winners. He has a big chance to become the future world number one.
“I need to (have) a very, very high rhythm to try to not let him play in comfortable positions. That’s what I am going to try.”
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)