AFP -Rafael Nadal believes he is finding his rhythm again after beginning his bid for a sixth Madrid Open title on Wednesday by beating Canadian teenager Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets.
Nadal has endured a turbulent few weeks after slipping to surprise defeats in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona last month before then being hit by a stomach bug on Sunday.
But there was never much sign of an upset in the Spanish capital, where the world number two opened up with a 6-3, 6-3 victory.
“Right now every victory is important for me because it gives me the option to play again the next day,” Nadal said.
“Two weeks ago maybe playing again was not a chance to improve because I didn’t feel like that in training.
“Now I am feeling better in matches and I think every one gives me the chance to get better.”
The 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime is enjoying something of a breakthrough year after beating Borna Coric, Fabio Fognini and Stefanos Tsitsipas, as well as Denis Shapovalov here in the first round.
Aside from some late resistance, however, that saw a nervous Nadal broken when serving for the match, Auger-Aliassime struggled to cope with his opponent’s power and spin on one of his favourite courts.
Nadal has not arrived in Madrid without winning in either Monte Carlo or Barcelona since 2015 and, after also pulling out of Indian Wells due to a knee injury in March, concern was growing ahead of the French Open later this month.
“I had a big mental drop,” Nadal said. “I had to stop for two weeks and mentally I dropped.
“I struggled a lot to get fit and recover that energy, which I now feel again.”
The 32-year-old, who will be chasing his 18th Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, will now face another young talent in America’s Frances Tiafoe, with either Stan Wawrinka or Kei Nishikori waiting in the quarter-finals.
Nishikori and Wawrinka will meet in the third round on Thursday, an early showdown for two players that have reached 12 Grand Slam semi-finals between them.
It took Nishikori just over two hours to win 7-5, 7-5 against Bolivian qualifier Hugo Dellien, who saved seven set points during a fightback from 5-1 down in the opening set.
Wawrinka, meanwhile, beat Argentina’s Guido Pella 6-3, 6-4, with a break in each set proving enough for the three-time Grand Slam champion.
The Swiss has won his last two matches against Nishikori, including a three-set victory in Rotterdam in February, when he went on to reach his first final since undergoing knee surgery in 2017.
– Osaka in control –
Juan Martin del Potro lost 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 to Serbia’s Laslo Djere in his first match since February as the Argentine continues to work his way back from a knee injury.
Nishikori’s compatriot and world number one Naomi Osaka is through to the quarter-finals of the women’s tournament for the first time after she eased past Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-2, 6-3.
Osaka pulled out of the semi-finals in Stuttgart last month with an abdominal injury but has said she is no longer feeling discomfort during matches.
“I feel fine, so that’s great,” Osaka said.
“I’m at a really good place right now. I feel like I’m having fun playing tennis again which is always a good thing for me. I always play well if I have that mentality.”
In the last eight, the two-time major champion will face Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic who beat Ukrainian qualifier Kateryna Kozlova 6-0, 6-2.
A potential semi-final foe for Osaka is world number three Simona Halep, who annihilated Slovakian Viktoria Kuzmova 6-0, 6-0 in 44 minutes.