Mackenzie McDonald and a dodgy hip stop Rafa Nadal
This makes it seven defeats in the nine matches since Nadal’s 2022 US Open fourth-round ouster, a wretched return from an abdominal injury last August
Few things tend to get Rafael Nadal irritated. Retirement talk is one of them. If it isn't journalists asking his thoughts on it at almost every press conference since the start of the new season, it’s his Tour colleague prophesying the end after this year's French Open. The Spaniard, although slightly annoyed when it came up again ahead of the Australian Open last week, would "answer the same every time you ask me".
It was, therefore, a bit surprising that after a visibly sombre Nadal walked off Rod Laver Arena with an extended acknowledgement and applause to the crowd on Wednesday, the R word did not find a mention even once in his post-match press conference. Yet, questions about his immediate future have engulfed the 36-year-old again after another injury-hampered defeat. This time the issue was the hip, and the loss to unseeded American Mackenzie McDonald 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in the second round of the Australian Open as the defending champion and top seed.
That's seven defeats in the nine matches since Nadal’s 2022 US Open fourth-round ouster, a wretched return from an abdominal injury last August. It dampened a rousing first half of the season which included two Grand Slams in Australia and Paris and as many ATP titles on hard courts.
That showed how much a fit Nadal—no matter the age or stage of his career—can march forward. This shows how much an injured Nadal runs the constant threat of being dragged back.
Currently world No 2, Nadal is set to drop to at least 6th in the new rankings from the points lost after his failed title defence. He'd also won the Acapulco title after last year's Australian Open. As things stand, Nadal doesn't know the extent of the hip injury to discuss his next possible stop in the calendar (Nadal was due to play in Dubai next month).
“Can't say I'm not destroyed mentally at this time," the 22-time Grand Slam champion said.
According to Nadal, the hip had been troubling him for the last couple of days, but “nothing like today in that moment”.
It came on McDonald’s serve at 15-15, 3-4 in the second set, by when Nadal was already a set and a break down. Moving across the baseline for a forehand, Nadal pulled up. He immediately looked at his box, squatted, felt his hip for a few seconds and got up to hobble towards his towel. The next point, he didn’t even attempt to return the serve down the T. Same with the next. Hardly moved. Hardly challenged.
“I don't know if it’s the muscle, if it’s the joint. I have history in the hip (issue). I had to do treatments in the past, but it was not this amount of problem," he said.
The Spaniard came back on court after a medical timeout after that game to hold serve. But, without being able to “hit the backhand at all” and “run for balls”, there was only so much Nadal could do in the third set other than stand and belt return winners, execute deft drop shots and deliver serve and volleys. Not once, though, did the body language complement the strokes, Nadal even holding back the urge to throw his racquet at times.
Even as his wife shed tears at his impending defeat, there were no instructions from the Nadal box to stop, like against Taylor Fritz in the Wimbledon quarter-final that he came through despite the abdominal tear only to later pull out of the semis. “I just wanted to finish the match, that's it,” he said. “I did not want to retire as the defending champion. Better that I lost.”
It was a loss that many saw coming at Melbourne Park this year. Even before the injury, McDonald was the better player for much of the first two sets, although Nadal felt he was getting “closer” to him as the contest wore on. His slow start carried on from that sluggish first-round win against Jack Draper, and the start of the season as a whole after last year's injury layoff. Nadal hoped he would find his rhythm and level with more matches, but another physical setback might have to make him start all over again ahead of the clay swing.
“Hopefully it's not too bad, and it doesn't put me out of court for a long time," he said. "Because then it's tough to make all the recovery again, the amount of work you need to put together to come back at a decent level.”
That said, Nadal made it clear he wouldn't stop trying, even though he wasn’t specifically asked about it this time. “It was not the right moment to have this," he said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it's difficult to accept, sometimes you feel super tired about all the injuries. But you need to keep going.”