2009 Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal will be hoping to reach the final at the event for the fourth time in his career. The former world number one has a good chance of doing that as his projected semifinal clash with Novak Djokovic will no longer occur. The six-time champion's title defence was halted by Denis Istomin in an enthralling five-set match on Thursday.
However, Nadal is experienced enough to not look too far ahead of the draw, and take it match by match. The ninth seed will play against the 24th seed from Germany, Alexander Zverev, in the third round. Zverev will be a major threat to Nadal's title chances, as the German has defeated Roger Federer on two occasions, and he had a match point against Nadal in Indian Wells last year.
Nadal's compatriot, Carlos Moya, has joined his coaching team, and the partnership was a logical one and has the credentials of being successful as Moya, a former French Open champion himself, will be looking to get Nadal back to his best.
How they got here
The former world number one began his quest for a second Australian Open title against Zverev's compatriot Florian Mayer, who defeated the Spaniard in their only previous meetings on hard courts. The 14-time Grand Slam champion defeated Mayer, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. In his second round match, the Spaniard was up against 2006 finalist Marcos Baghdatis. It was an entertaining encounter but Nadal was clearly the better player in this match. The left-hander hasn't dropped a set, and he thrashed the Cypriot, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 to advance to the round of 32.
Zverev's progress through to the third round in Melbourne has been tough. The 19-year-old had to come back from two sets to one down against Robin Haase. The 24th seed's maturity shone as he defeated the Dutchman, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2. In the second round, he had an easier time against a fellow rising star, American qualifier Frances Tiafoe in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 to reach the third round at the Australian Open for the first time in his career.
The two seeded players have met in the round of 16 stage at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The former world number one came back from a set down and saved a match point when Zverev missed a sitter. Nevertheless, the left-handed Spaniard went on to defeat Zverev, 6-7 (8), 6-0, 7-5 in a three-set thriller in the Californian Desert.
The 2009 Australian Open champion has had a good start to 2017, playing a high-quality quarterfinal match with Milos Raonic in Brisbane, just falling short in three sets. The 14-time Grand Slam champion will need to serve well in this match, and the German is a big server with a big forehand. It is vital that Nadal hangs on to his service games as Zverev has the ability in his locker to send down aces, and plenty of unreturnable serves. On the other hand, the 24th seed may feel fatigued if this match goes to four, or five long sets, as he's already had to play a five-set match in this tournament, which could catch up with him later on.
This is a big opportunity for Nadal to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time in nearly two years since the French Open in 2015. Moreover, the ninth seed still has a tough draw ahead of him but he is more than capable of reaching the final in Melbourne again. However, Zverev will have other ideas, and sense that this will be a big opportunity to defeat Nadal for the first time in his career. The German moves well around the court for his height, and furthermore, Nadal could throw in a few drop shots to get Zverev off the baseline, and his forehand has been in scintallating form this week.
This will be the third match scheduled in the Rod Laver Arena, following the women's singles third round match between six-time champion Serena Williams and her compatriot Nicole Gibbs. The winner of this fourth round match will play another seed, and it will be either last year's quarterfinalist and sixth seed Gael Monfils or Zverev's compatriot and 32nd seed Philipp Kohlschreiber. This match has the potential to be an instant classic but Nadal should have a little too much for Zverev, being in a best out of five sets match.
Prediction: Nadal in straight sets