- Associated Press - Saturday, January 18, 2014

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) - Rafael Nadal made it abundantly clear how much he missed the last Australian Open with the manner of his third-round demolition of Gael Monfils.

Top-seeded Nadal trounced No. 25-seeded Monfils 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 in two hours to finish off Saturday’s program on the Rod Laver Arena, then told the crowd it was “very emotional to have the chance to play that well here in Australia after missing last year.”

He skipped it in 2013 during a seven-month layoff for illness and injuries, depriving him a chance to pick up two full sets of the Grand Slam titles.

Nadal returned to win the French and U.S. Open crowns among his 10 titles last season and regained the year-end No. 1-ranking. The Australian Open is the only major Nadal has not won at least twice, with his sole triumph at Melbourne Park in 2009. The Spaniard lost an epic five-set final to Novak Djokovic two years ago.

The 27-year-old broke Monfils’ serve in the first game and then fended off three break points before holding in the next. He conceded just one point on serve in the second set and, apart from a slight stumble that caused him to hobble around momentarily, he didn’t have any trouble advancing. Nadal next plays No. 16 Kei Nishikori of Japan, who ended the U.S. run in the men’s draw with a comfortable win over Donald Young.

“Very happy the way that I played against a very tough opponent like Gael,” Nadal said, giving himself high marks for the performance. “So that makes the level that I played tonight better because it was against a tough opponent.

“That makes me feel confident, but I am in fourth round. That’s all.”

There were other lopsided matches on the Rod Laver Arena, with two-time women’s defending champion Victoria Azarenka routing Yvonne Muesburger 6-1, 6-1 to set up an Australian Open rematch with Sloane Stephens.

Third-seeded Maria Sharapova opened the day session with a straight-sets win over No. 25 Alize Cornet and Roger Federer dispatched Teymuraz Gabashvili of Russia 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 in his return to the center court after a one-match hiatus on the secondary court at Melbourne Park.

Federer is one of two four-time Australian Open champions in the men’s draw. The other, three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic will play his fourth-round match on Sunday, against No. 15 Fabio Fognini. That match follows five-time Australian champion Serena Williams’ match against Ana Ivanovic in the women’s fourth round.

Federer and Nadal are in the tough half of the draw along with Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who is two tournaments into a return from minor back surgery in September.

Murray, a three-time finalist in Melbourne, clutched at his back as he hurdled an advertising board after chasing a drop shot early in his 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2 win over Feliciano Lopez. But he said it was no problem.

“I’ve recovered well after the matches,” he said. “From time to time a bit of stiffness and soreness, but for the most part it’s been good.”

An aching back and adjustments for a new racket bothered Federer in the latter half of last year, when his second-round exit at Wimbledon ended a record streak of reaching the quarterfinals or better at 36 consecutive majors. He made a fourth-round exit at the U.S. Open.

But now the pain is gone, he has come to grips with the new racket and he and wife Mirka are expecting another child, all good portents for Grand Slam success as he sees them.

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