Any questions about Rafa Nadal’s fitness were seemingly answered when he came through a testing virtual five-hour marathon opening round last Monday, so it was surprising to watch, 48-hours later, the world No.2 crash out of the season’s first major, the Australian Open, with a hip injury.
He’s an incredible champion, he’s never going to give up regardless of the situation. I was trying to stay focused on what I was trying to do and he kind of got me out of my rhythm, and I just got through it. Mackenzie McDonald
The record books will show that the defending champion lost to the American ranked 65 in the world, Mackenzie McDonald 6-4 6-4 7-5 on the Rod Laver Arena for what is the Spaniard’s worst result at a grand slam.
On the day though, that defeat opens the door for arch-rival Novak Djokovic to draw equal with the Spaniard’s record 22 Slam titles a year after the Serbian found himself trailing Nadal in the race for most grand slam wins when he was expelled from the country where he had pocketed the Aussie Open title nine times.
Top seed Nadal never settled in his second-round match, slumping a set behind before forced to take a medical timeout when a break down in the second set, picking up some sort of strain whilst stretching for a forehand.
He battled on but was in clear discomfort, as was his watching wife Mery who was seen to be in tears.
“It was pretty tough to stay mentally engaged but I found a way to just pull it out,” McDonald said of what will go down as the best win of his career.
“He’s an incredible champion, he’s never going to give up regardless of the situation. I was trying to stay focused on what I was trying to do and he kind of got me out of my rhythm, and I just got through it.”
The last time Nadal fell so early at a Grand Slam was at the Australian Open in 2016, when he lost in the first round.
The only previous time the pair had met Nadal had dropped just four games on the clay of Roland Garros, but this time McDonald was always in control pushing the Spanish icon onto the back foot, breaking him on his first service game to storm into a 4-1 lead.
As McDonald recollected: “Last time I played him was on [Court Philippe] Chatrier (the French Open) and he kicked my butt.
“On clay court it is tough to hit through but on hard I like my chances. I wanted to take it to him on the hard court, I’m thankful I got that opportunity and I got away with it.”
Nadal protested to the umpire, Marijana Veljovic, that he was being rushed on his serve before clawing a break back, complaining that he was starting the timer too early before ach of his serves as he desperately tried to wipe away the sweat on his face and arms with the towel.
“Every match, at least I can move for the towel,” Nadal ranted at Veljovic. “With you, I cannot.
“Every time I am in a rush, even when serving normal, without the towel, I see the clock … five, four, with you it’s always the same. It’s okay.
“For you, it doesn’t matter, I cannot take the towel each time, the towel is there [gestures] at the back of the court.
“You don’t know, you try to understand, but you don’t take the towel.”
In his previous match he had asked the umpire for permission to use the ball boy to get his towel saying that it was so far away that it took too long for him to do so in thee time allowed. That was denied.
Before clawing that break back Nadal earned another break point at 4-5 to level it up, but the American held on to clinch the set.
Nadal left the court at the changeover, but it didn’t help, with his serve again failing to fire, broken early once more as McDonald continued to dominate.
The Spaniard was on shaky territory, but as he has done so many times before, he found a way to claw back and level the set at 2-2.
But the errors began to creep in again and he was broken once more before hurting himself at 15-30 in the eighth game, which he lost before gingerly walking back to his seat.
The physio was summoned and he could be heard saying “hip” in Spanish before leaving the court for a medical timeout with wife Mery visibly in tears in the players’ box.
He returned and gamely carried on but was a shadow of his former self.
Later Nadal faced the press and admitted that the injury was more than a physical problem, but it had made a mental impact on him as well.
“[I] just can’t say that I am not destroyed mentally at this time, because I will be lying,” he said.
“I really hope that it doesn’t put me out of the court for a long time. It’s not only the recovery. It’s all the amount of work that you need to put together to come back at a decent level.”
He continued, “I went through this process too many times in my career, and I am ready to keep doing it. I think, but that’s not easy.”
He had considered retiring but that is not in his character.
“Just try your best until the end,” he said, “It doesn’t matter the chances that you have. That’s the philosophy of the sport.”
Anyone that has followed Nadal’s career will know that he is no stranger to injuries, especially over the past year. In 2022 Nadal won Roland Garros with ‘no feeling’ in his left foot, withdrew from his Wimbledon semi-final with an abdominal injury and then was suffering with this same problem at the US Open.
Nadal explained that his love of the sport is what keeps him going, “It’s a very simple thing: I like what I do. I like playing tennis. I know it’s not forever. I like to feel myself competitive. I like to fight for the things that I have been fighting for almost half of my life or even more.”
“When you do things that you like to do, at the end of the day, it’s not a sacrifice,” the Spanish icon added. “Sacrifice is when you are doing things that you don’t want to do. And that was not my case.
But of course it’s tiring and frustrating to [spend] a lot of my tennis career on recovering process and trying to fight against all this stuff all the time.”
“But I accept it quite well during all my tennis career, and I was able to manage it well. But of course [the] last seven months have been, again, another tough period of time. I don’t know what can happen in the future.”
For the player who has been described as an ‘animal’ because of his fitness and physical presence on court, this latest setback will be prove a major hurdle for him to overcome and no doubt, he will be wanting to be defending his French Open title starting late May.
Many will advise him to retire but that seems unlikely bearing in mind his character and his love of the game.
Meanwhile his conqueror, McDonald, play Yoshihito Nishioka, on Friday, for a place in the fourth round following the Japanese player’s 6-3 6-4 6-2 victory over the Czech Dalibor Svrcina.