Defending champion Rafael Nadal ousted from Australian Open

Defending champion Rafael Nadal ousted from Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal nodded during the changes and rested his elbows on his knees, the very picture of resignation.

What was already a poor start to 2023, after a year marked by all sorts of health issues, hit a low point at the Australian Open on Wednesday.

Defending champion and No. 1 seed at Melbourne Park, Nadal injured his left hip and lost to Mackenzie McDonald 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in the second round, abruptly ending his bid for a record 23rd Grand Slam. trophy.

“It’s a tough moment. It’s a tough day,” Nadal said. “I can’t say I’m not mentally destroyed right now because I would be lying.”

The 35-year-old Spanish player stopped awkwardly after a point late in the second set against McDonald, 65th.

Nadal was visited by a coach on the sidelines and then left the pitch for a medical time-out. In the stands, his wife wiped away tears. Nadal returned to action but was physically compromised and not tireless as usual, later claiming he couldn’t hit his backhand properly and couldn’t run much either.

But Nadal added that as the defending tournament champion he did not want to leave the pitch via a mid-game retirement.

He said the hip had been bothering him for a few days, but it had never been worse than Wednesday. Nadal wasn’t exactly sure what the nature of the injury was, saying he would undergo medical tests to determine if it had to do with muscle, joint or cartilage.

“He’s an incredible champion. He’ll never give up no matter the situation, so even fighting against a top player like him is always tough,” said McDonald, a 27-year-old American player who won the NCAA singles and doubles championships for UCLA in 2016. “I kept focusing on myself at the end and I got through.”

This is Nadal’s first Grand Slam outing since retiring in the first round in Melbourne in 2016 against No.45 Fernando Verdasco. It also made Verdasco the lowest-ranked player to beat Nadal in Australia – until, of course, McDonald’s on Wednesday.

McDonald has never made it past the fourth round of a major tournament. In his only previous clash against Nadal, at the 2020 French Open, McDonald won just a total of four matches in a lopsided loss.

“He kicked my ass,” McDonald recalled Wednesday.

A year ago, Nadal won the Australian Open for the second time to claim his 21st major championship, then he took his tally to 22 – the most for a man – at Roland Garros.

He is currently ranked No. 2, but Nadal was the top seed at Melbourne Park as No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz is out of the Australian Open with a bad leg.

Nadal’s body has betrayed him a bit recently.

He needed painkiller injections for his left foot before winning the French Open in June, pulled out of Wimbledon in July before the semi-finals due to a torn abdominal muscle and also has treated a costal cartilage problem in 2022.

Nadal’s exit drains the tournament of even more star power. In addition to his absence and that of Alcaraz, 2022 Wimbledon runner-up Nick Kyrgios has withdrawn because his left knee needs arthroscopic surgery, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka is absent from the tour while pregnant, two-time major champion Simona Halep is serving a doping ban and Venus Williams is injured.

It all adds up: the 2023 edition of the Australian Open is the first Grand Slam tournament since Serena Williams and Roger Federer announced their retirement.

Nadal arrived in Melbourne 0-2 this season, making him 1-6 since September, when he lost to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the US Open.

Even in a first-round victory on Monday, a four-setter against a cramped Jack Draper, Nadal never quite seemed to be at his best to chase every ball, put every shot high on target. He looked, somehow, his age.

It was the same from the start against McDonald’s.

“I’m really happy with the way I started this game. I thought I was playing really well, serving well and returning well too,” McDonald said. “So I was really bringing it to him.”

That is true. Right off the bat, McDonald’s was on and Nadal was out.

The opener served as a harbinger: McDonald took a 1-0 lead thanks to a trio of unforced errors from Nadal – two from his fearsome left side.

In a bad mood, Nadal got back and forth with chair umpire Marijana Veljovic during the breaks to find out if she was starting the service clock between points too quickly for his liking.

Soon McDonald’s was up a set. Then he went up a station wagon right away in the second.

After a point in this set, Nadal showed real signs of struggling. He crouched down behind the baseline and put his racquet down on the court. Then he approached and leaned on a sign, prompting Veljovic to ask if Nadal was okay.

Nadal watched a few serves from McDonald’s racquet go past him, then was checked by the coach. While the match would continue, it was essentially over on the spot.

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