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With the Australian Open about to kick off, all eyes are on Rafael Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia – The first collective gasp of this year’s Australian Open came on Thursday afternoon, four days before the tournament officially kicks off.

The buzz came at the start of the men’s singles draw when Jack Draper’s name appeared in the second spot in the field of 128 players. This meant that Draper’s first-round opponent would be Rafael Nadal, the defending Australian Open champion and No. 1 seed in the absence of the injured Carlos Alcaraz.

The hubbub in the room was a sign of the growing strength of the left-handed Draper – a 21-year-old Briton, he is fit and has reached 40th in the world – but also a reflection of Nadal’s disarray.

One of the greatest champions in any sport, Nadal has lost six of his last seven singles matches on the tour, struggling with his timing, confidence and even composure as he was defeated by, in order, Frances Tiafoe, in the fourth round of the US Open Championship; Tommy Paul, in the first round of the Paris Masters; Taylor Fritz and Felix Auger-Aliassime, in round-robin matches at the ATP Finals; and Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur in the just-concluded United Cup team event.

None of those six men reached a Grand Slam singles final and neither did Hubert Hurkacz, who handed Nadal his latest defeat – if only in a practice match – at the Rod Laver Arena on Thursday night in front of a few thousand spectators (and a chair umpire).

Hurkacz, a flashy marksman with an unflashy personality, isn’t easy. He is number 10 in Melbourne and will forever be the last man to face – and defeat – Nadal’s friendly rival Roger Federer in singles.

Hurkacz defeated Federer in straight sets in the 2021 Wimbledon quarter-finals, and looked considerably looser and more relaxed on Thursday night than Nadal, who continued to cast worried looks at his head coach Carlos Moyá after missing solo and first serves.

“Rafa is certainly vulnerable,” said Todd Woodbridge, a former Australian star who is now an Australian television analyst. “He had that faraway look in an exchange against Tiafoe at the US Open and it looked like he had it again in the match against de Minaur last week.”

But, as Woodbridge and everyone else in tennis has learned over and over again over the past 19 years, you can’t rule out a player with Nadal’s talent and inner drive. He has repeatedly risen from the depths, most recently at the 2022 French Open, which he entered injured and falling, but later managed to win his 14th men’s singles title at Roland Garros.

Another title played here in Melbourne seems far less likely, however. The opening hurdle is tall with the 6ft 6in Draper, who advanced to a semi-final match on Friday at the kickoff event in Adelaide.

The son of Roger Draper, former chief executive of the British Lawn Tennis Association, Jack Draper was once considered uncertain of reaching the top level because of his movement. But he has significantly improved his quickness and court coverage in recent seasons.

“It’s going to be amazing to play on a big court against him; he is a great champion,” said Draper in Adelaide of his first chance to face Nadal. “Whatever happens, it will be a special occasion for me. I’m still very young in my career, so it’s great to have that kind of experience and exposure to play Rafa in a big arena.”

Overtake Draper and Nadal could face rising American Brandon Nakashima in the second round, Tiafoe in the fourth round and former No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the quarterfinals in what would be a rematch of his topsy-turvy five-set Australian. Open end last year.

Nadal’s experience, courage and problem-solving ability in best-of-five sets should not be discounted, and he has been focusing on cutting points and getting to the net in his pre-tournament sessions this week. He frequently advanced against Hurkacz on Thursday.

“I need to win games for sure, but the preparation is going really well, I’m training a lot and I’m in good shape,” said Nadal. “So you need to demonstrate that in official tournament matches, but I am confident that if I can have the last week of positive training, why not?”

Draper isn’t the only British player with a standout fixture in Melbourne. Andy Murray, Nadal’s contemporary and former No. 1, will face former Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini in the first round. Emma Raducanu, the surprise 2021 US Open Women’s champion, could face seventh seed Coco Gauff in the second round if they both win their opener (and if Raducanu’s ankle injury continues to improve and allow her to participate in the tournament).

Gauff, 18, struggled with his forehand and confidence towards the end of the 2022 season but had a productive off-season and on Sunday captured the singles title in Auckland, New Zealand. The event was played indoors and outdoors because of frequent rain showers and did not feature many of the other top competitors at the Australian Open.

The favorite in the women’s draw remains No. 1 Iga Swiatek despite her lopsided and emotional loss to Jessica Pegula of the United States in the United Cup. But Swiatek, who faces German player Jule Niemeier in the first round, is in a thorny section of the draw. Her eighth spot includes Grand Slam singles champions Bianca Andreescu and Elena Rybakina, as well as Danielle Collins, who lost in last year’s Melbourne final to Ashleigh Barty, who retired last March.

There will also be newcomers, including 15-year-old qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova, the youngest woman at the tournament and part of the great wave of young talent from the Czech Republic, which includes her sister Linda Fruhvirtova, 17, who is also making her Australian singles debut open.

Thursday’s draw brought another rarity: a first-round match between two former Australian Open singles champions: Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian veteran who won in 2012 and 2013, and Sofia Kenin, the American who won in 2020 , but has since slipped out of the top 100. This clash was even more extraordinary considering that Azarenka and Kenin are the only Australian Open women’s singles champions in the draw. Seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams is now retired (or at least has evolved). Two-time champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber are pregnant, as is Barty, although that came after her unexpected retirement at age 25.

A lot can change quickly in tennis, as Nadal is well aware, and this year’s tournament is already a radical departure from last year’s, as Novak Djokovic is in the draw after being deported by the Australian government on the eve of the 2022 event for being not vaccinated for the coronavirus.

Now, after a change in government policy and after winning the warm-up event in Adelaide, Djokovic, still unvaccinated, can chase his 10th Australian Open singles title. He will face Spanish unseeded Roberto Carballés Baena in the opening round on the opposite side of longtime rival Nadal’s draw.

Based on current form, Djokovic winning his 22nd major singles title seems much more plausible than Nadal winning his 23rd.