Nadal, Barty advance in straight sets at Australia Open

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Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts during his first round match against Serbia's Laslo Djere at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

MELBOURNE – Facing a break point late in the third set, Rafael Nadal sprinted to his left and hit a running forehand winner from way out wide.

A slow-motion fist pump was a very subdued celebration by his standards. The 20-time major champion wasn't going to let the lingering back soreness that bothered him ahead of the Australian Open stop him from getting through the first round as soon as he possibly could.

Laslo Djere, ranked 56th, watched the winner land, held out both hands, and no doubt wondered what more he needed to do to win a point.

When Djere, going for everything, double-faulted to open what became the last game of the match, a woman in the crowd at Rod Laver Arena yelled out “It’s all right, Laslo.”

Easy for her to say.

Nadal finished off a 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 win in just under two hours Tuesday in his first competitive match of the year — he didn’t play for Spain at the ATP Cup last week because of the back stiffness.

“My back is not perfect, as I said a couple of days ago,” Nadal said. “Every day that I’m able to go through, probably there are more chances to get better. That’s the thing now — there is always a chance to improve, and that’s why I’m here playing and fighting to try to get better and then give myself a chance.”

A minor change to his service motion was among the precautions he took “survive” for the first round.