MELBOURNE, Australia – The end came all at once for Rafael Nadal, then it happened slowly.
Down one set and on the ropes against Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday, Nadal injured his hip while chasing a shot in the eighth game of the second set. His eyes, filled with concern, immediately turned to his coaches sitting on the court at Rod Laver Arena. Then he knelt in a corner to rest. A few moments later, he returned to continue, because for Nadal, the only thing worse than losing is giving up.
Knowing his day and his tournament were over, he watched two aces burn, leading him to a two-set love affair against McDonald, a 27-year-old American who had never broken the top 40. in the world rankings. McDonald played the match of his life in almost two sets, then did what he needed to close out a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 victory over an ailing Nadal, who circled the court for another hour. like a wounded deer.
After Nadal’s injury came McDonald, a former UCLA player, spent more than 90 minutes sticking lines with his shots when he needed them most. Nadal, the No. 1 seed, called a trainer, left the court to receive medical treatment for what appeared to be an injury in his midsection, near his right hip, then returned to play.
Nadal, 36, struggled to move and chase balls with the abandon that has become a hallmark of his game. He couldn’t generate power from his back. He stayed with McDonald through the first 10 games of the second set, moving around, taking breaks to quickly break points. But McDonald hit enough shots that Nadal managed to end his career at 11, then won the match when Nadal hit the last shot.
After it was over, Nadal stood up to a loud cheer, taking a few moments to turn around and shake the crowd.
At a press conference after 45 minutes, the defending Australian Open champion said his frustration was beyond measure, his voice breaking slightly as he talked about another career injury, despite his success, which has been filled with them.
“I can’t say that I’m not mentally damaged now because I’d be lying,” he said.
The loss was the latest in a series of defeats that have plagued him recently as he battles injuries and a damaged psyche. He also has to adjust to fatherhood after the birth of his first child, a son, in October.
Nadal had lost six of his previous seven matches coming into the tournament, several of which were against younger players. They would have been surprised to play against an undefeated opponent. Now, he steps onto the court knowing that Nadal, whose body has undergone an incredible workout in his career, is as vulnerable as he has been at any point in his career.
“He’s an amazing hero,” McDonald said of Nadal after the match. “He will not give up.”
2023 Australian Open
The first annual Grand Slam tennis tournament will be held from January 16 to January 29 in Melbourne.
McDonald’s victory was the latest in a series of victories for the American against Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam champion. For nearly two decades, he could not touch him, especially in Grand Slam tournaments. That changed in September at the US Open, when 24-year-old Frances Tiafoe knocked her out in the fourth round. Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz beat Nadal after falling in another match, as the Spaniard tries to make a late-season comeback from an abdominal injury.
On Wednesday, it was McDonald’s turn, in a performance that was famous in last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinals, when Nadal tore an abdominal muscle playing Fritz. On that day he won in five groups, as his coaches and relatives urged him to stop. The talks did not take place on Wednesday. His wife, sister, father and coaches remain silent, allowing the match to reach its inevitable conclusion.
Nadal said he had not felt good in his hip in recent days but it was nothing like what he felt in that critical moment at the end of the second set.
“I don’t know what’s going on, if it’s a muscle, if it’s connecting,” he said. “I have a history in my hip. I had to have treatment before, and I can speak a little. It wasn’t that bad. Now I feel like I can’t move.”
Before the injury, McDonald stood on the starting line and beat Nadal at his game, meeting Nadal’s power and control with his smooth style, curling forward over the net and sending Nadal chasing the ball from corner to corner. After Nadal hit hard, so did MacDonald. He broke Nadal’s serve early in the first and second sets and kept Nadal down all day, then settled down as Nadal played through the pain.
The defeat marked Nadal’s first exit from a Grand Slam tournament since losing in the first round of the Australian Open seven years ago.
McDonald took a break from the bad weather that has plagued the race since Tuesday, drenching Melbourne with rain. Wednesday’s rain forced the roof to be closed, which players said slowed the ball’s speed. Throughout the match, Nadal struggled to get past the backcourt, his ball slowing down to allow McDonald to catch it and take his best shots.
Nadal has faced all the challenges of the sport in the last 18 months. He missed the second round of 2021 with a series of injuries, then went to Melbourne a year ago, just seven weeks after being on crutches. With his badly injured foot, he thought it might be his last chance to play for Australia.
He returned to form and won the final in Melbourne in straight sets against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev. For the first time in 13 years, he was the champion of the Australian Open.
At the French Open, he received an injection to relieve pain in his foot before every match. However, he rolled in his 14th title of the race, but it came off the stick.
He entered Wimbledon, his first tournament on grass in three years, without playing a heat. He won all five matches he played but was pulled out of the semifinals due to a torn stomach.
He played a solid match before the US Open and lost to Tiafoe in four sets in the fourth round. Tiafoe was the first American player to beat Nadal at a Grand Slam in nearly two decades.
In late September, Nadal teamed up with Roger Federer in the finals of the Swiss tournament. Nadal tried to stay healthy in two indoor games late, neither of which went well.
Nadal arrived in Australia in December to play Spain in the inaugural United Cup, a rare men’s and women’s tournament. He lost both of his matches, extending the most difficult phase of his career.
At times of disappointment, Nadal can seem wise, grateful for all the good things in his life. Wednesday was different, he said, as he struggled to do so.
“I can’t come here and say, lie, that life is good and stay positive and fight,” he said. “Not now. Tomorrow starts another day. Now it’s a tough time. It’s a tough day, and you have to accept it, I’m going to keep going. You know, in the end, I can’t complain about my life at all. So when it comes to sports and injuries and tough times, I mean, this is another. I can’t say that I’m not mentally damaged right now.”
Nadal will take time off to regain his health, so, if he can, shift his focus to the spring court season and the French Open. It is a tournament that he has won 14 times, and he calls it the most unique of his sport.
“I like to play tennis,” he said. “I know it’s not always. I like to feel competitive. I love fighting the same battles I’ve been fighting for almost half my life or more.
All that success will mean nothing, however, if Nadal can’t stay healthy, something that only gets worse as he races.
In the end, that might be one tough opponent, even for Nadal, but if there’s any chance to delay the inevitable for too long, he’ll take it, no matter the sacrifice.
“When you like to do one thing,” he said. “Sacrifices always make sense.