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Nadal closes on Slams record

Rafael Nadal outclassed Fabio Fognini to close in on the all-time Grand Slam titles record on yesterday as Ashleigh Barty ramped up hopes of becoming the Australian Open’s first home winner in 43 years.

Nadal said his lower-back stiffness was continuing to improve after his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 against the flamboyant Italian, that set up a quarter-final against Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Fognini had registered a five-set win over Nadal at the 2015 US Open, but the Spaniard cantered to victory after recovering from 2-4 down in the second set.

Nadal is now into his 43rd Grand Slam quarter-final, staying on course for a title match with eight-time winner Novak Djokovic who battled through an abdominal injury to reach the last eight on Sunday.

“I’m happy to be in the quarter-finals today – that means a lot to me, it’s positive stuff,” said Nadal, who is level with Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.

Next up for Nadal is world number six Tsitsipas, who went through on a walkover after Italy’s Matteo Berrettini pulled out with an abdominal strain.

The Melbourne tournament remained fan-free for a third day yesterday during a five-day lockdown in Victoria state to curb a coronavirus outbreak.

As the action continued in front of empty stands, top-ranked Barty beat big-hitting American Shelby Rogers in impressive fashion to reach the last eight.

Barty won 6-3, 6-4 to go into the quarter-finals without dropping a set as she bids to become the first Australian champion since Chris O’Neil in 1978.

“I love playing at home and sharing this with my friends and family,” said Barty, who hit 21 winners.

The former French Open champion next plays Karolina Muchova, who came through two tight sets to beat Belgium’s Elise Mertens 7-6 (7/5), 7-5.

RUSSIANS ARE COMING

Earlier, unseeded American Jessica Pegula reached her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final with victory over Elina Svitolina, her first over a top-10 player.

Pegula, whose billionaire father owns the Buffalo Bills NFL team, overcame fifth seed Svitolina 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 to set up a meeting with fellow American Jennifer Brady, a 6-1, 7-5 winner against Croatia’s Donna Vekic.

“I can’t get more confident – it is my best result yet and I’m playing good tennis and today was a hard-fought win,” said Pegula, 26.

“Jen (Brady) is an awesome person. She’s a great person,” Pegula added. “She was texting me, ‘I’m so happy, I’m so proud. This is awesome.'”

Elsewhere, fourth seed Daniil Medvedev and seventh seed Andrey Rublev both won to ensure an all-Russian quarter-final.

Medvedev, the 2019 US Open runner-up, blew away American world number 192 Mackenzie McDonald 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 to extend his winning streak to 18 matches.

Rublev, who is also unbeaten this year, went through when Norway’s Casper Ruud retired after losing the first two sets.

The 22-year-old Norwegian had reached the last 16 at a Slam for the first time – emulating his father, Christian, who achieved the same feat at the 1997 Australian Open.

With qualifier Aslan Karatsev already through to face Grigor Dimitrov in the top half of the draw, it means there will be three Russian men in the last eight of a Slam for the first time since the Open era began in 1968.

SERENA NOT ‘OBSESSED’

Serena Williams’ coach insisted she’s not “obsessed” with equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles, arguing her achievements could not be compared with titles won in the amateur era.

The 39-year-old, 23-time major winner has lost four Slam finals while chasing Court’s all-time mark since her last major victory at Melbourne Park in 2017 while pregnant.

Despite now having a three-year-old daughter, Olympia, in tow, Williams is still grinding away. But her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said she had nothing to prove.

“Does she need that validation (of winning a 24th Slam)? I don’t think she needs that validation,” he said. “But, I mean, clearly she came back to tennis to win some other Grand Slams, so that’s for sure the goal. Now, she’s not as obsessed with the 24 than most of the people in the tennis world, but definitely she wants to win Grand Slams.”

Williams has looked sharp at Melbourne Park, so far, although she was tested by big-hitting Aryna Sabalenka over three sets on Sunday. But she counter-attacked superbly to come through and set up a quarter-final today against second seed Simona Halep.*AFP

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