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Nadal passes Norrie test to keep Slam dream alive; Barty sweeps into last 16

Rafael Nadal hits a return against Cameron Norrie during their men’s singles match on day six of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Saturday.

World number two Rafael Nadal kept his dream of a record 21st Grand Slam title alive on Saturday with a testing win over Cameron Norrie in an Australian Open battle of the left-handers.

The Spanish second seed has altered his service motion due to lower-back tightness, but it didn’t stop him emphatically demolishing his first two opponents in straight sets.

Britain’s 69th-ranked Norrie proved a tougher assignment, with Nadal pressed much harder before emerging a 7-5, 6-2, 7-5 winner in an empty Rod Laver Arena as Melbourne went into a five-day coronavirus lockdown.

It put him into a Slam last 16 for the 49th time, behind only Roger Federer (67) and Novak Djokovic (53).

“All the matches are tough… I didn’t convert the opportunities I had at the beginning of every set, so then the situation becomes a little bit more difficult,” he said.

“And then of course you are playing against the best players in the world, so it’s normal that you might suffer a bit. But happy now, good feelings. Of course I need to keep improving.”

Nadal, who next faces fiery Italian Fabio Fognini, who beat Australian Alex de Minaur in straight sets, is bidding to win his 21st major title and claim sole ownership of the men’s record, which he currently shares with Federer.

His victory keeps him on course to meet Djokovic in the final, although the defending champion is under an injury cloud after suffering what he called an abdominal “muscle tear” in his third-round clash on Friday.

BARTY SWEEPS ASIDE ALEXANDROVA: World number one Ashleigh Barty gave long-suffering Melbourne something to cheer as the home hope swept into the Australian Open last 16 at an empty Margaret Court Arena following a snap coronavirus lockdown on Saturday.

Barty said it was “very strange” to play behind closed doors, a day after more than 22,000 fans visited Melbourne Park, as the five-day, state-wide lockdown went into force.

Barty’s straightforward 6-2, 6-4 win over Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova put her into the fourth round without dropping a set as she bids to become the first Australian winner since Chris O’Neil in 1978.

“It’s very strange, it changes the sound in the court a little bit,” Barty said of the empty, 7,500-seat stadium.

“Maybe a little bit rude of me, but I quite liked the sound. Man, I love the crowd but I love the sound the ball makes. It kind of felt a little bit like practice.”

As play unfolded in Melbourne Park’s empty arenas on Saturday, former world number one Karolina Pliskova had a racquet-smashing tantrum en route to a 7-5, 7-5 defeat by fellow Czech Karolina Muchova.

Ukrainian fifth seed Elina Svitolina beat Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 6-0.

Daniil Medvedev overcame buttock pain and a walk-out by his coach as he withstood a five-set test from Filip Krajinovic at the Australian Open on Saturday.

The fourth seed blew a two-set lead and needed treatment to his left glute before finally moving past the Serb 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-0 and into the fourth round, extending his win streak to 17.

Greece’s world number six Stefanos Tsitsipas put friendship aside to crush Ymer and race into the Australian Open fourth round, saying that playing in front of empty stands reminded him of when they hit together during quarantine.

The pair were born within weeks of each other and were often pitted together as juniors, but Greek fifth seed Tsitsipas swatted the Swede 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 on John Cain Arena.

“It’s a different atmosphere, different vibe,” said Tsitsipas, after his 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over Mikael Ymer.

“But if I can win my next matches, the crowd will be back. It’s just five days, and I’ll be happy to see them back.”

In the same venue, Matteo Berrettini beat Russian seed Karen Khachanov 7-6 (7/1), 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/5) to set up a meeting with Tsitsipas.

Elsewhere Russia’s Andrey Rublev ended Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez’s record 75th consecutive Grand Slam to set up a meeting with Norway’s Casper Ruud.

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