By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An ailing Rafa Nadal dug deep into his vast reservoir of grit to stave off American qualifier Tim Smyczek and stagger into the third round of the Australian Open on Wednesday on a day of great escapes.
Gushing sweat and stooping woozily between points, the sickly Spaniard dragged his cramping body into a fifth set under the lights of Rod Laver Arena, breaking the 112th-ranked American in the 11th game before closing out a 6-2 3-6 6-7(2) 6-3 7-5 win in four grueling hours and 12 minutes.
Nadal slumped to his knees on the blue hard court having narrowly averted a repeat of his Melbourne Park jinx.
"It was a very tough night for me (and) ... a tough period of seven months without competition," Nadal, who was out of action for several months during the latter half of the 2014 season through injury and illness, said in a courtside interview.
"Today was a little bit humid conditions and I felt very tired after the first set, through the whole match.
"The fantastic crowd helped a lot so many thanks for that."
For much of the match, there was a hush over the terraces, with many in the crowd no doubt spooked by the memories of Nadal's torture in the final last year when he lost to Stan Wawrinka while carrying a back injury.
Nadal's coach and uncle Toni Nadal revealed his nephew had been bitten below the eye by a mosquito in the run up to the match, adding further intrigue to a day of high drama at Melbourne Park.
Center court was the backdrop for nerve-shredding tests for some of the coolest heads in the business and with the temperature rising above 32 degrees Celsius (90F), Maria Sharapova showed ice in her veins.
She mounted a brilliant counter-attack to fend off fellow Russian Alexandra Panova, a 150th-ranked qualifier playing the match of her life.
Down two breaks of serves at 4-1 in the deciding set, Sharapova clawed back to 5-4 and clobbered a string of forehand winners to save two match-points before marching on to a defiant 6-1 4-6 7-5 victory.
"When other things aren't working, maybe the mental side of things will help you out," the five-times grand slam champion told reporters.
"Until the very end I still try to dictate, I still try to find my way."
Men's second seed Roger Federer was also forced to scrap in the following match on center court, after being thrown by a phantom pain on the little finger of his racquet hand during his 3-6 6-3 6-2 6-2 win over 48th-ranked Italian Simone Bolelli.
Stunned in the first set by a barrage of clean hitting, the Swiss master growled at a prying television camera as medical staff examined his finger during the change of ends.
However, he gritted his teeth and merely got on with the job, closing out the match with a rush to the net that would have pleased coach and famous serve-volleyer Stefan Edberg.
"It felt like a bee stung me," the 33-year-old said of his troubled finger. "I was like, 'this can't be possible'.
"I'd never had this pain before... Thankfully it wasn't so bad at the end."
MURRAY IN A HURRY
Andy Murray's second outing on the Margaret Court Arena was far more serene as the sixth seed trounced Marinko Matosevic 6-1 6-3 6-2 to retreat to the cool of the shade after 102 impressive minutes.
The Scot's win extended his unbeaten record against Australians to 10-0, deflating the crowd's joy slightly after 10 locals had made it past the first round across both the men's and women's draws.
"I think I moved pretty well today ... If you want to win these tournaments, you need to defend well," said Murray, who next faces Portugal's Joao Sousa before a potential showdown with young gun Grigor Dimitrov, who wobbled but won 6-3 6-7(10) 6-3 6-3 against Lukas Lacko.
Canadian sensation Eugenie Bouchard, a semi-finalist on her Melbourne Park debut last year, continued her love affair with the blue hard courts, despatching Kiki Bertens 6-0 6-3 in 54 minutes.
Seventh seed Tomas Berdych also roared forward with a straight sets demolition of Austrian veteran Juergen Melzer.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)