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Top-Seeded Rafael Nadal Loses at Australian Open After Injury

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MELBOURNE, Australia — For nearly twenty years, American men have been all but helpless against Rafael Nadal, especially at Grand Slam tournaments.

Now, seemingly, they’ve his number.

Down one set and on the ropes against Mackenzie McDonald within the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday, Nadal pulled up lame while chasing down a shot within the eighth game of the second set. His eyes, crammed with concern, immediately turned to his coaches seated courtside at Rod Laver Arena. He then crouched within the corner to catch his breath, returning moments later to proceed the sport.

He could do nothing greater than watch two aces blaze by, bringing him to the brink of happening two-sets-to-love against McDonald, a 27-year-old American who has never cracked the Top 40 on this planet rankings. McDonald had played the match of his life for nearly two sets, then did what he needed to do to prevail over an ailing legend.

The injury got here after McDonald, a former U.C.L.A. Bruin, had spent greater than 90 minutes pasting the lines together with his shots when he needed to most. Nadal, the No. 1 seed, called for a trainer on the court, left to receive medical treatment for what seemed to be an injury to his midsection, near his right hip, then returned and played on.

He struggled to maneuver and chase after balls with the abandon that has at all times been the hallmark of his game. He could barely generate power from his backhand. He one way or the other stayed even with McDonald through the primary 10 games of the second set, hobbling around, taking wild cuts to attempt to end points quickly. But McDonald put barely enough shots out of Nadal’s reach to interrupt his serve within the eleventh, then clinched the match 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 when Nadal netted one last backhand return.

When it was over, Nadal left to a rousing ovation, taking an additional few moments too turn and wave to the gang.

For Nadal, the defending Australian Open champion, the loss was the most recent in a string of defeats which have plagued him as he has battled injuries and a wounded psyche recently. He also has had to regulate to fatherhood after the birth of his first child, a son, in October.

Nadal had lost six of his previous seven matches coming into the tournament, with several of those coming against a younger generation of players. Once they might have been awed playing against a virtually unbeatable opponent. Now, they walk onto the court knowing that Nadal, whose 36-year-old body is banged up from playing an incredibly physical style over his profession, is as vulnerable as he has been at any point in his profession.

The American success against Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, began in September on the U.S. Open, when Frances Tiafoe, 24, knocked him out within the fourth round. Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz beat Nadal later in the autumn in other tournaments, when the Spaniard was attempting to return late within the season from an abdominal injury.

The yr’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.

Wednesday, it was McDonald’s turn, in a scene that was eerily familiar of last yr’s Wimbledon quarterfinals, when Nadal tore an abdominal muscle while playing Fritz. On that day he one way or the other prevailed in five sets, whilst his coaches and relatives urged him to quit. Those fights didn’t materialize Wednesday. His wife, sister, father and coaches sat mostly silent, letting the match reach its inevitable end.

All afternoon McDonald stood on the baseline and beat Nadal at his own game, meeting Nadal’s power and topspin together with his own, curling forehands just above the web and sending Nadal chasing the ball from corner to corner. When Nadal hit harder, so did MacDonald. He broke Nadal’s serve early in the primary and second set and kept Nadal under pressure all day, then remained regular as Nadal played through the pain.

The defeat marked Nadal’s earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament since he lost in the primary round of the Australian Open seven years ago.

McDonald caught a break from the inclement weather that has plagued the tournament since Tuesday, drenching Melbourne with rain. The rain on Wednesday had forced the closure of the roof, which the players say slows down the pace of the ball. Throughout the match, Nadal struggled to hit through the back of the court, his ball slowing barely enough to permit McDonald to catch as much as it and take his best rips.

Nadal has experienced all of the highs and lows of the game through the last 18 months. He missed a lot of the second half of 2021 due to a series of injuries, then ventured to Melbourne a yr ago, just seven weeks after being on crutches. Along with his foot chronically injured, he thought then it is perhaps his last opportunity to play in Australia.

He quickly returned to form and won the ultimate in Melbourne after being two sets down against Daniil Medvedev of Russia. For the primary time in 13 years, he was the Australian Open champion.

On the French Open, he received injections to numb the pain in his foot before every match. Nevertheless, he rolled to his 14th title, but left on crutches.

He entered Wimbledon, his first official match on grass in three years, without playing a warm-up tournament. He won all five matches he played but needed to withdraw before the semifinals due to the torn abdominal.

He played only one hardcourt match before the U.S. Open and lost to Tiafoe in 4 sets within the fourth round. Tiafoe was the primary American-born player to beat Nadal at a Grand Slam since Nadal was a young person.

In late September, Nadal partnered with Roger Federer within the Swiss champion’s final competitive match. Nadal tried to get healthy for 2 late-season indoor tournaments, neither of which went well.

Nadal arrived in Australia in December to play for Spain within the inaugural United Cup, a rare competition with each men and ladies. He lost each of his matches, extending one among the roughest stretches of his profession.

Nadal will likely take a break to get healthy again, then turn his focus to the spring clay-court season and the French Open, a tournament he has won 14 times and has been essentially the most special for him. All that success will mean nothing, though, if Nadal can’t maintain his health, something that only gets harder as athletes age.

Ultimately, that often is the one opponent that proves too tough, even for Nadal.

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