MELBOURNE, Australia – Rafael Nadal bowed his head and rested his elbows on his knees during the changeover, the image of resignation.
What was already a poor start to 2023, after a year marred by all sorts of health issues, hit rock bottom on Wednesday at the Australian Open.
Defending champion and No. 1 at Melbourne Park Nadal injured his left hip and lost in the second round to Mackenzie McDonald 6-4 6-4 7-5, ending his bid for a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam was abruptly terminated trophy.
“It’s a tough moment. It’s a tough day,” said Nadal. “I can’t say I’m not mentally devastated at this moment because I would be lying.”
The 35-year-old Spaniard clumsily pulled up a point at the end of the second set against 65-place McDonald.
Nadal was visited by a coach on the sidelines and then left the pitch for a medical time-out. Up in the stands, his wife wiped away tears. Nadal returned to play but was physically impaired and not his usual tireless self. Afterwards he said he couldn’t hit his backhand properly and he couldn’t run much either.
But Nadal added that as the tournament’s reigning champion, he didn’t want to leave the pitch by retiring mid-game.
He said the hip had bothered him for a few days but it was never as bad as it was on Wednesday. Nadal wasn’t entirely sure about the nature of the injury and said he would have medical tests done to determine if it was a muscle, joint or cartilage.
“He’s an incredible champion. He’ll never give up no matter what the situation, so it’s always difficult to hold your own against a top guy like him,” said McDonald, a 27-year-old American player who has won NCAA championships in singles and doubles for UCLA im Year 2016. “I always ended up focusing on myself and getting through it.”
This is Nadal’s earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament since he was eliminated in the first round by No. 45 Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne in 2016. It also made Verdasco the lowest-ranked player to beat Nadal in Australia – until McDonald, of course, on Wednesday.
McDonald has never advanced past the fourth round in a major tournament. In his only previous matchup against Nadal at the 2020 French Open, McDonald won just four games in total with a one-sided loss.
“He kicked my butt,” McDonald recalled Wednesday.
A year ago, Nadal won the Australian Open for a second time to win his 21st major championship, then increased his total to 22 – the most for a man – at Roland Garros.
He is currently No. 2 but Nadal was the top seed at Melbourne Park because No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz sits out at the Australian Open with a bad leg.
Nadal’s body has given him quite a bet lately.
He needed painkiller injections in his left foot en route to winning the French Open in June, withdrew from Wimbledon ahead of the semifinals in July with a torn abdominal muscle and was also dealing with a problem with rib cartilage in 2022.
Nadal’s exit drains even more star power from the tournament. Adding to his absence and that of Alcaraz, Wimbledon 2022 runner-up Nick Kyrgios withdrew due to arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Halep is serving a provisional doping ban and Venus Williams is injured.
On top of that, the 2023 edition of the Australian Open is the first Grand Slam tournament since Serena Williams and Roger Federer announced their retirements.
Nadal arrived in Melbourne that season with a 0-2 record, taking him to a 1-6 date from September when he lost to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the US Open.
Even during a first-round win on Monday, a four-seater against a struggling Jack Draper, Nadal never seemed quite able to chase every ball, best place every high-spin shot on target. Somehow he looked his age.
The same was true against McDonald from the start.
“I’m really happy with how I started this game. I thought I was playing really well, serving great and returning well too,” McDonald said. “So I really took it to him.”
This is true. McDonald was there from the start and Nadal was gone.
The first game was something of a harbinger, with McDonald going 1-0 up thanks to a trio of unforced errors from Nadal – two from his feared forehand left.
Unnerved, Nadal got into a back-and-forth during the breaks with chair umpire Marijana Veljovic over whether she started the service clock between the points too fast for his liking.
Soon McDonald was up a set. Then he went straight to the break in the second.
After a point in that set, Nadal showed real problems. He crouched behind the baseline and placed his racquet on the court. He then walked over and leaned against a sign, prompting Veljovic to ask if Nadal was okay.
Nadal watched a couple of McDonald’s serves fly past him, then he was checked by the coach. While the game would go on, it was essentially instantaneous.