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Smiling assassin Nadal laughs off heckler in Australia history bid

Rafael Nadal laughed off a gesticulating heckler as he brushed aside Michael Mmoh and continued his quest for history at the Australian Open on Thursday.

On a day when defending women’s champion Sofia Kenin departed in tears, but top-ranked Ashleigh Barty progressed, Nadal was impeccable on Rod Laver Arena.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Feliciano Lopez and Lloyd Harris were all taken to five sets, as was Fabio Fognini—in an all-Italian clash that ended in a furious row.

Teenager Coco Gauff, 16, who beat Naomi Osaka to reach the fourth round last year, saw her challenge ended by Elina Svitolina.

But Nadal, who has complained of a bad back as he seeks a record 21st Grand Slam title, swept past America’s 177th-ranked Mmoh 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.

A female spectator interrupted the match late in the second set, shouting and giving Nadal the middle finger, before she was ejected—and the Spaniard immediately fired two aces for a 2-0 sets lead.

“No, and honestly I don’t want to,” said a smiling Nadal, when asked if he knew the heckler.

“For me it was funny, somebody doing the finger to me. I don’t know the reason, but I was surprised. But at the same time I was thinking, poor girl. Because probably she was drunk or something.”

Next up for the Spaniard, who is attempting to overtake the injury-sidelined Roger Federer and become the first man to win 21 major crowns, is Britain’s Cameron Norrie.

Elsewhere Russia’s Daniil Medvedev extended his winning streak to 16 matches on this 25th birthday, beating Roberto Carballes Baena 6-2, 7-5, 6-1.

But world number four Sofia Kenin’s first Grand Slam title defence went no further than the second round as she lost 6-3, 6-2 to Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi.

“I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure,” said an emotional Kenin, wiping away tears.

‘Fit as a fiddle’

While the American became just the third defending champion since 1970 to fail to reach the third round, Barty lifted hopes of a first Australian winner since 1978.

Playing with her left thigh heavily strapped, the top seed twice failed to serve out the win before ousting her 387th-ranked compatriot Daria Gavrilova 6-1, 7-6 (9/7).

Barty, who is unbeaten in seven matches after sitting out nearly all of last year, blamed the lapse on ring-rust.

“Obviously going to have ebbs and flows not only in concentration but level of play as well,” said the Aussie, dismissing any injury concerns. “I’m as fit as a fiddle,” she said.

Gauff beat Venus Williams and the then-champion Naomi Osaka en route to the round of 16 last year, when she was just 15, but Svitolina had other ideas this time around.

The Ukrainian world number five lifted her game in the pivotal moments to win 6-4, 6-3 as she eyes a maiden Grand Slam title.

Tsitsipas was not expected to be troubled by 267th-ranked Kokkinakis but the Australian, roared on by his close friend Nick Kyrgios, saved a fourth-set match point before going down in five tight sets.

Spain’s Lopez, 39, was also taken the distance in his record-extending 75th consecutive Grand Slam before beating Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

But the most combustible match was between Fognini and Salvatore Caruso, as the two Italians had to be separated by a tournament official during a heated argument after the 16th seed’s four-hour, 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (14/12) win.

Earlier Russian rising star Andrey Rublev maintained his unbeaten start to the year with a 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (10/8) victory over Brazil’s Thiago Monteiro.

Sixth seed Karolina Pliskova ousted 2019 semi-finalist Danielle Collins, and Swiss 12th seed Belinda Bencic overcame veteran Russian Svetlana Kutznetsova 7-5, 2-6, 6-4.

But 17-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, tipped as a future great, lost against Mikael Ymer to end his debut Grand Slam.

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