Rafael Nadal strikes Andy Murray with low blow at Australian Open

British number one takes Spaniard’s practice shot to the groin - they may meet in last four

As Andy Murray doubled over to ease the pain of an unscheduled blow to that part of the male anatomy which has generated more laughs down the years than Tommy Cooper's fez, Amelie Mauresmo gave him a comforting pat on his broad back and smiled. Player and coach then looked across the net to see Toni Nadal, grinning as if he had won the first prize in a Friday-night pub raffle.

“That’s what a coach is for,” Rafa’s uncle and career-long mentor shouted to his opposite number from the other end of the echoing Rod Laver Arena.

It was Rafa’s practice serve arriving unseen that had done the temporary damage, and all present bar the injured party were mightily amused.

Nonetheless, there could be no escaping at least a sliver of schadenfreude emanating from the Spanish bench. Respect is all well and good; the misfortune of your enemies is a gift.


There were maybe a dozen members of the media, mainly cameramen and photographers, hovering for a snippet but there was no drama to relate; Murray stretched his legs and got back into it, as fit now as his interrupted preparation would allow since he had helped Britain win the Davis Cup for the first time in 79 years with a glorious one-man show in Ghent before Christmas.

The rickety old tennis caravan moves on. Murray and Nadal were here to hit, not long after a draw had pitched them to meet in the semi-finals of the Australian Open - provided they negotiate familiar obstacles over the next fortnight - and then adversaries who have traded fire since their teenage apprenticeship on the clay of Spain got down to business.

They have done this hundreds of times in their long rivalry and friendship but each shot was fashioned with intent. It was not a hit in the park. Nor was it an occasion on which to gain any psychological advantage; there is precious little on offer anyway when two experienced players collide so regularly.

All in all, both came out of the scattergun experience of Friday’s draw with little to complain about.

Murray faces the exciting German teenager, Alexander Zverev, and they will meet on Tuesday, while Nadal goes up against his Spanish compatriot, Fernando Verdasco. Seven years ago, they toiled here in the semi-finals for five hours and 17 minutes, the longest contest in the tournament’s history to that point. Fernando would dread a reprise more than Nadal, who has won 14 of their 16 encounters. If all goes to plan Nadal and Murray could swap meaningful blows for the 23rd time on Friday week.

That seems such a long way off two days before the tournament starts. So many things can change, including the notorious Melbourne weather, which is scheduled to swing from the high-sixties (20C) coolness of Friday to searing near-century (37C) oppression at the start of the week through to possibly Thursday.

Two years ago, the heat did for Jamie Murray and a few others. Earlier this week, marginally younger brother Andy looked to be wilting in the 100-plus (40C) conditions during practice. The Australian summer does not shine kindly on pale Caledonian heads - but Murray minor should have no fitness worries; despite tweaks to his preparations because of the pending arrival of his first child - and disregarding the leg-rubbing here on Friday - he is ready to go.

Murray’s challenge shapes like this: on Tuesday it starts with Zverev, whose conditioner, Jez Green, left the Scot’s camp in 2014, along with Dani Vallverdu, just as Mauresmo was joining; then possibly he has the Australian Sam Groth, whose second serve frightens ball boys; the dance card to follow could include the up-and-down American Donald Young, the bubbling-up Australian Bernard Tomic, the towering American serving machine that is John Isner or, in a scenario of which the Lawn Tennis Association could hardly dream, Aljaz Bedene, who is one appeal away from joining Great Britain’s Davis Cup squad - and then the Spaniard.

Nadal's passage to the final weekend is hardly a route march to hell, either. He should make short work of Verdasco, perhaps toy with the eccentric Latvian Ernests Gulbis, before the prospect of an entertaining showpiece with Gael Monfils or a grind against Kevin Anderson, then almost certainly a quarter-final with Stan Wawrinka, who beat him in the final two years ago.

Nadal has suffered here against opponents and the frailties of his body. Although still trailing Roger Federer in age and majors, since his worrying dip last year he has yet to dispel the notion he is closer to maxing out than the extraordinary Swiss.

Federer, at 34, is parked on the other side of the draw and begins his campaign with what ought to be an angst-free workout against the 117-ranked Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili. Thereafter - as is proper - the questions become more difficult: the in-form Alexandr Dolgopolov, the impossible to predict Grigor Dimitrov, either of the young contenders, Dominic Thiem or Britain’s Kyle Edmund, followed by a mouth-watering confrontation with Nick Kyrgios - but only if the Australian is fit and interested.

It is Federer’s misfortune, or ordained fate since he slipped outside the top two in the world, to have Novak Djokovic barring his way to another final, and there is little to suggest anyone in the Serb’s path is capable of stopping him, although there is much interest in the debut of the Korean teenager Hyeon Chung, who has risen from 173 to 51 in the world.

From that point on, the world No1, a raging favourite here as everywhere else, should cut a swath through unseeded Ivan Dodig, the 28th seed Andreas Seppi, Gilles Simon (14) and, with considerably more stubborn resistance, the seventh seed Kei Nishikori.

Will Federer be in the semi-finals to greet him? Possibly - unless one of Thiem, Edmund or Kyrgios can conjure an upset. The future belongs to them. The present has no landlord.

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