‘Spe­cial to be back,’ Nadal says af­ter win

No. 2 seed looks to be in good form in wake of lengthy in­jury lay­off

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MEL­BOURNE, Aus­tralia — Rafael Nadal has missed a lot of ten­nis since Septem­ber. He hasn’t missed a beat.

The No. 2­seeded Nadal rolled to a 6­4, 6­3, 7­5 win over Aus­tralian wild­card en­try James Duck­worth on Mon­day in the first round of the Aus­tralian Open, his first match back in Rod Laver Arena since he had to re­tire in his quar­ter­fi­nal match last year.

The 17­time ma­jor win­ner hasn’t played since re­tir­ing from his semi­fi­nal at the U.S. Open be­cause of a knee in­jury, and then had surgery on his right an­kle in Novem­ber. He with­drew from a warm­up tour­na­ment in Bris­bane in the first week of the sea­son be­cause of a mus­cle strain in his thigh.

“Not easy to come back af­ter a lot of months of com­pe­ti­tion, es­pe­cially against a player play­ing su­per ag­gres­sive ev­ery shot,” Nadal said. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to start af­ter an in­jury — I know it very well. It’s very spe­cial to be back.”

Wear­ing a sleeve­less top, he showed no signs of prob­lems against Duck­worth. His only hic­cup came when he served for the match in the ninth game of the third set and was bro­ken at love. He re­turned the fa­vor very quickly, though, to reach the sec­ond round.

Nadal has only lost twice in the first round at Grand Slams — to Steve Dar­cis at 2013 Wim­ble­don, and to Fernando Ver­dasco here in 2016 — and is aim­ing to be the first man in the Open era two win all four ma­jors at least twice.

Shara­pova blanks foe: Maria Shara­pova has the sec­ond­best record among ac­tive women’s play­ers in first­round matches at the ma­jors, and she gave an il­lus­tra­tion of why that’s the case with a ruth­less 6­0, 6­0 win over Har­riet Dart.

The 2008 Aus­tralian Open cham­pion got play started in Rod Laver Arena and needed only 63 min­utes to ad­vance.

In her 15th trip to Mel­bourne Park and her 55th Grand Slam tour­na­ment, she’s acutely aware of the toll that the sun and long early matches can have on ti­tle am­bi­tions, so she gets straight to busi­ness.

The 22­year­old Dart, play­ing in the main draw of a ma­jor for only the sec­ond time af­ter get­ting a wild­card to play last year at Wim­ble­don, only got a look at one break point in the match — when Shara­pova served a dou­ble­fault in the sec­ond set. She got seven of her 29 points from Shara­pova’s dou­ble­faults.

Also ad­vanc­ing were 2017 U.S. Open cham­pion Sloane Stephens, No. 11 Aryna Sa­balenka, No. 19 Caro­line Gar­cia, No. 29 Donna Ve­kic and No. 31 Pe­tra Mar­tic.

Danielle Collins ad­vanced to the sec­ond round of a ma­jor for the first time with a 2­6, 7­6 (5), 6­4 win over No. 14­seeded Ju­lia Go­erges.

New tiebreaker sys­tem de­buts: Katie Boul­ter earned the dis­tinc­tion of win­ning the first 10­point tiebreaker un­der the Aus­tralian Open’s new sys­tem for de­cid­ing sets.

Boul­ter beat Eka­te­rina Makarova 6­0, 4­6, 7­6 (6), in­clud­ing 10­6 in the tiebreaker. The new rule was in­tro­duced to en­sure matches don’t get too lengthy — pre­vi­ously the third set in women’s matches and the fifth set in men’s matches at the Aus­tralian Open had to be de­cided by a two­game ad­van­tage.

Wil­liam West/afp/getty Im­ages

Maria Shara­pova opened her 15th Aus­tralian Open and 55th Grand Slam tour­na­ment with an easy vic­tory.

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