Injury Costs Top Seed Rafael Nadal the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal’s decline was sudden and gradual.
Nadal was playing Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday when he hurt his hip chasing down a shot in the eighth game of the second set. Nadal was already down a group and on the verge of elimination. Concerned, he looked over at his coaches in the Rod Laver Arena stands. After that, he squatted in a nearby nook to collect his thoughts. In Nadal’s opinion, only quitting is worse than losing, so he returned to play a few minutes later.
He was down two sets to love to McDonald, a 27-year-old American who has never been ranked in the top 40 in the world, and he knew it was game over as he watched two aces fly by. After playing his best tennis for over two sets, McDonald did what he could to seal a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 triumph over a sluggish Nadal, who limped around the court for nearly another hour like a wounded deer.
McDonald, a former University of California, Los Angeles player, had spent more than 90 minutes before Nadal’s injury putting away easy points when it mattered most. The top-seeded Nadal called for a trainer, left the court to get checked out for what seemed to be an injury to his core, close to his right hip, and then returned to continue playing.
Nadal was playing Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday when he hurt his hip while chasing down a shot in the eighth game of the second set. Nadal was already down a group and on the verge of elimination. With worry in his eyes, he looked across to his coaches at Rod Laver Arena. He squatted in the corner for a moment to regain his composure. Nadal returned to continue the match a few minutes later because he believed the only thing worse than losing was giving up.
He was down two sets to love to McDonald, a 27-year-old American who had never been ranked in the top 40 in the world, and he knew his day and tournament were over as he watched two aces fly by. McDonald played the match of his life for nearly two sets before doing the necessary things to secure a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 triumph over an ill Nadal, who walked around the court for nearly another hour like a wounded deer.
After McDonald, a former player for the University of California, Los Angeles, spent more than 90 minutes putting away easy points when it mattered most, Nadal was forced to retire with an injury. The top-seeded Nadal called for a trainer, left the court to get checked out for what seemed to be an injury to his core, close to his right hip, and then returned to continue playing.
To the cheers of the fans, Nadal walked off the court, pausing for a few seconds longer than usual to turn and wave.
Forty-five minutes later, the defending Australian Open champion held a news conference and claimed his disappointment was inconceivable, his voice shaking slightly as he spoke about another injury in a career plagued by them despite all of its success.
He admitted, “I can’t tell that I am not mentally shattered this time because it would be a lie.”
His ongoing struggles against injuries and a battered psyche have culminated in this latest defeat. His first child, a son, was born in October, so he’s also had to adjust to life as a new dad.
Before this competition, Nadal had lost six of his previous seven matches, many of which were against younger players. They were once intimidated by the prospect of facing a seemingly unstoppable opponent in a game. Now, they step foot on the court, knowing that Nadal, whose body is battered from playing such a physically demanding style over the years, is more susceptible than at any point in his career.
McDonald said of Nadal after the match, “He’s a fantastic champion.” He will continue to try till he succeeds.
It was the latest in a long line of American victories over Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam champion, and McDonald was the most recent. For nearly twenty years, no one was able to beat him, especially on the Grand Slam circuit. The 24-year-old Frances Tiafoe altered that in September’s fourth round of the U.S. Open. Later in the fall, when Nadal was trying to make up for a lost time after an abdominal injury, he was defeated by Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz.
A year after Nadal tore an abdominal muscle while playing Fritz in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, it was McDonald’s time on Wednesday. On that day, despite pressure from his coaches and family members to give up, he prevailed in five sets. On Wednesday, such talks could have materialized. His family, including his wife, sister, father, and coaches, sat silently, waiting for the contest to end.
Earlier in the match, Nadal had complained of hip pain, but he claimed that the pain he felt late in the second set was unprecedented.
I can’t tell if it’s a muscle or a joint,” he remarked. “My hips have seen better days. There was a time when I had to do therapies and talk about it a little. Not this severe a difficulty. “Right now, I have no strength left in me.”
Before his injury, McDonald stood on the baseline and defeated Nadal at his own game, matching Nadal’s power and topspin with his flatter version of it, curling forehands just above the net and sending Nadal chasing the ball from corner to corner. Nadal’s heavier blows inspired MacDonald to up his game. He started strong by breaking Nadal’s serve early in both sets, maintained pressure all day, and stayed composed while Nadal battled through injury.
Since losing in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open, seven years ago, this was Nadal’s earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament.
McDonald was spared from the rain that has doused Melbourne since Tuesday and has been a constant presence throughout the tournament. Due to the rain on Wednesday, the roof had to be closed, which the players believe slowed down the game. Nadal had a hard time getting his shots through the back of the court, and McDonald could take advantage of this by getting to them before they got too far ahead of him.
During the last 18 months, Nadal has gone through every extreme in the sport. After missing the second half of 2021 due to a string of ailments, he went to Melbourne less than a year ago while still on crutches. His foot had been giving him trouble for a while, and he worried that this would be his last chance to play Down Under.
Even though he was down two sets to none to Russian Daniil Medvedev in the final, he quickly rallied to win in Melbourne. He finally won the Australian Open after a dry spell of 13 attempts.
He had injections into his foot before each match at the French Open to dull the agony. However, he won the tournament and his 14th overall, but he had to leave using crutches.
He skipped a warm-up competition and went straight into Wimbledon, his first competitive match on grass in three years. He was forced to retire with a ruptured abdomen before the semifinals despite winning all five games.
He only had one hardcourt match under his belt before the U.S. Open, when Tiafoe eliminated him in four sets. This became the first time in nearly two decades that a player born in the United States has defeated Nadal at a Grand Slam tournament.
Nadal paired up with Roger Federer for the Swiss champ’s showdown in late September. There were two indoor tournaments left in the season that Nadal tried to play in despite his injury, but he did not fare well in either of them.
In December, Nadal traveled to Australia so the Spanish team could compete in the first-ever United Cup, a rare competition that included both men and women. Both of his matches ended in losses, adding more hardship to an already difficult period of his career.
Nadal has shown the ability to appear philosophical even amid great adversity, often offering expressions of gratitude for the blessings in his life. He had no trouble with it until Wednesday when he suddenly found himself struggling.
He said you couldn’t just come here and say everything is great; you need to stay positive and keep fighting. Not at this time. A new day will begin tomorrow. It’s a trying time right now. Today is not easy, but you must push through it. Finally, I realized that there was nothing wrong with my life. That’s another, but just in the realm of sports and all the injuries and setbacks that come with them. I cannot deny that my mental health has been irreparably damaged.
If Nadal is going to be at his best for the clay court season and the French Open this spring, he will need to rest and get healthy. He’s won this tournament 14 times, making it the most significant in his professional career.
“Tennis is fun,” he said. It can’t last forever; I know that. I enjoy a good challenge. I want a good battle, and I’ve been in this one for the better part of my life now.
However, if Nadal cannot keep his body in good shape—a task that becomes increasingly challenging for athletes as they age—then all his accomplishments will be for naught.
Even if that turns out to be the one opponent who can beat Nadal, he’ll take the chance to postpone the inevitable by any means necessary.
Do what you’re passionate about, he advised. There is always logic behind a sacrifice.