Rafael Nadal returned to the Australian Open this year in the midst of one of the leanest periods of form in his career, charged with racing against the clock to find confidence and feel against a pack of rivals determined to seize a rare opportunity against a vulnerable champion.
Despite his best efforts to meet the challenge, as he so often has throughout his career, Nadal’s tournament came to a bitter end on Wednesday afternoon as he struggled badly with his form before succumbing to his body. After suffering from injury while trailing in the second set, the defending champion and top seed was defeated 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 by unseeded American Mackenzie McDonald in the second round.
Nadal had arrived in Melbourne having lost six of his previous seven matches since his loss to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the US Open and this new defeat marks the 36-year-old’s third loss out of four matches in 2023. It is also Nadal’s fourth loss to an American player over the past four months after also losing to Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz in recent tournaments.
During his scrappy four-set first round win over Jack Draper, Nadal was far from his best, with his game still caked with unforced errors even as Draper began to suffer from cramp. But Nadal had hoped that the mere act of winning was a sufficient step forward.
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Instead, he returned to Rod Laver Arena even flatter than before. As Nadal opened with a dire, error-strewn service game and struggled early on, McDonald burst into the match serving extremely well, soaking up pressure with his movement and constantly looking to attack with his slick, early ball-striking, McDonald put much of his attention on attacking the Nadal forehand, and he continually broke down what is normally one of the most feared strokes in the game.
Towards the end of the first set, Nadal seemed to have found greater rhythm and he generated a break point on McDonald’s serve at 4-5 with a searing forehand down-the-line passing shot winner. But in the very next point he shanked his return off a soft first serve. McDonald calmly recovered to slam the door shut.
As against Draper, Nadal struggled badly to hit through the court and consistently pierce McDonald’s strong defence from the baseline. The American, finding greater joy with his earlier, flatter strike, broke serve to open the second set.
While Nadal trailed by a set and a break at 3-4, he lunged at a defensive forehand and pulled up clutching his stomach area. From that point onwards, Nadal could no longer chase down balls and he watched as numerous serves flew past him. After McDonald held serve to lead 5-3, Nadal took an off-court medical timeout as the Rod Laver Arena crowd fell silent.
Even as he stared down the prospect of defeat – his wife, Mery, was in tears in the crowd – Nadal demonstrated his mental fortitude as he attempted to play on for until the end. It was clear that a hobbled Nadal had almost chance of winning three consecutive sets yet he kept hold of his serve deep into the third set before McDonald finally broke serve and closed out the match, ending Nadal’s miserable day while securing the biggest win of his career. – Guardian