MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal, with his head down and his elbows on his knees during transition, is the picture of submission.
After a year plagued by various health issues, 2023 has started poorly, reaching a low point at the Australian Open on Wednesday.
Nadal, the defending champion and number one seed at Melbourne Park, injured his left hip and lost to Mackenzie McDonald 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in the second round. His record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam came to an abrupt end Stop the cup.
“It’s a tough moment. It’s a tough day,” Nadal said. “I can’t say I’m not having a nervous breakdown at the moment because I’d be lying.”
The 35-year-old Spaniard made an embarrassing exit at the end of the second set against 65th-ranked MacDonald.
Nadal was visited by a coach on the sidelines before leaving the court for a medical timeout. In the stands, his wife wiped away tears. Nadal returned to the game, but his body was damaged and he was no longer as indefatigable as he used to be. After the game, he said that his backhand was not accurate and he did not run much.
But Nadal added that, as the tournament’s defending champion, he did not want to leave the court by retiring at halftime.
He said the hip had been bothering him for a few days, but never as bad as it was on Wednesday. Nadal was unsure of the nature of the injury, saying he would have a medical test to determine if it was muscle, joint or cartilage related.
“He’s an unbelievable champion. He’ll never give up, no matter what the situation is, so it’s always tough to compete even with such a top player,” said the 27-year-old American, who was in Won the NCAA championship in 2018. 2016 UCLA singles and doubles. “I kept focusing on myself and finally got through.”
It was Nadal’s earliest exit at any Grand Slam tournament since his first-round match against No. 45 Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne in 2016. It also makes Verdasco the lowest-ranked player to beat Nadal in Australia — until McDonald’s on Wednesday, of course.
McDonald has never made it past the fourth round in a major tournament. In his only previous matchup with Nadal at the 2020 French Open, Macdonald won just four games in total, with losses on both sides.
“He kicked my ass,” McDonald recalled Wednesday.
A year ago, Nadal won the Australian Open for the second time, earning his 21st Grand Slam title, before raising his total to 22 – the most among men – at the French Open.
He is currently ranked No. 2, but Nadal is the top seed at Melbourne Park as No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz is out at the Australian Open with a leg injury.
Nadal’s body has betrayed him a lot lately.
He needed pain-relieving injections in his left foot en route to winning the French Open in June, withdrew from Wimbledon in July with a torn abdominal muscle before the semifinals and is dealing with rib cartilage problems in 2022.
Nadal’s exit drained even more star power. In addition to his and Alcaraz’ absences, 2022 Wimbledon runner-up Nick Gilgeous withdrew because he needed arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka missed the tour due to pregnancy, and the two-time Grand Slam Consistent champion Simona Halep is serving an interim doping ban and Venus Williams is injured.
The bottom line: The 2023 Australian Open is the first Grand Slam since Serena Williams and Roger Federer announced their retirements.
Nadal arrived in Melbourne with a 0-2 record this season, which made him 1-6 in September when he lost to Francis Tiafoe in the fourth round of the US Open.
Even in Monday’s first-round victory, a four-set battle against a crampy Jack Draper, Nadal never seemed to quite chase every ball, hitting every high-spin shot on target. He looks, somehow, his age.
The same is true for targeting McDonald’s from the start.
“I’m very happy with the way I started that game. I thought I hit it really well, served well, came back well,” McDonald said. “So I literally brought it to him.”
That’s real. From the start, McDonald was on and Nadal was off.
The first game served as a sort of foreshadowing: Macdonald led 1-0 thanks to Nadal’s three unforced errors – two of which were his dreaded left-handed forehands mistake.
Nadal was in a bad mood, sparring with referee Marijana Veljovic during the break, arguing over whether she started the serve clock between two o’clock too quickly for his liking.
Soon, Macdonald had a set. Then he rested right away in the second quarter.
After scoring a point in that set, Nadal showed real signs of trouble. He crouches behind the baseline and puts his racket on the court. He then walked over and leaned against a sign, which prompted Vijovic to ask Nadal if he was okay.
Nadal watched McDonald’s racket fly past him before being checked by his coach. While the game will continue, it’s largely over.