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Top-seeded Nadal loses at Australian Open after injury


Rafael Nadal lost Wednesday to Mackenzie McDonald, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, at the Australian Open.


By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN


The end came all at once for Rafael Nadal, and then it happened slowly.


Down one set and on the ropes against Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday, Nadal injured his hip while chasing down a shot in the eighth game of the second set. His eyes, filled with concern, immediately turned to his coaches seated courtside at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. He then crouched in the corner to catch his breath. Moments later, he returned to continue, because for Nadal, the one thing worse than losing is quitting.


Knowing his day and his tournament were all but done, he watched two aces blaze by, bringing him to the brink of going down two-sets-to-love against McDonald, a 27-year-old American who has never cracked the top 40 in the world rankings. McDonald had played the match of his life for nearly two sets, then did what he needed to do to close out a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 victory over an ailing Nadal, who hobbled around the court for nearly another hour like a wounded deer.


Nadal’s injury came after McDonald, a former UCLA player, had spent more than 90 minutes pasting the lines with his shots when he needed to most. Nadal, the No. 1 seed, called for a trainer, left the court to receive medical treatment for what appeared to be an injury to his midsection, near his right hip, then returned and played on.


Nadal, 36, struggled to move and chase after balls with the abandon that has always been the hallmark of his game. He could barely generate power from his backhand. He somehow stayed even with McDonald through the first 10 games of the third set, hobbling around, taking wild cuts to try to end points quickly. But McDonald put just enough shots out of Nadal’s reach to break his serve in the 11th, then clinched the match when Nadal netted one last backhand return.


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


In a news conference 45 minutes later, the defending Australian Open champion said his disappointment was unimaginable, his voice cracking slightly as he spoke about suffering yet another injury in a career, despite all of its success, that has been filled with them.


“I can’t say that I am not destroyed mentally this time because I would be lying,” he said.


The loss was the latest in a string of defeats that have plagued him recently as he has battled injuries and a wounded psyche. He also has had to adjust 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 would have been awed playing against a nearly unbeatable opponent. Now, they walk onto the court knowing that Nadal, whose body is banged up from playing an incredibly physical style, is as vulnerable as he has been at any point in his career.


“He’s an incredible champion,” McDonald said of Nadal after the match. “He’s never going to give up.”


McDonald’s win was the latest in a string of successes by Americans against Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam champion. For nearly two decades, they could barely touch him, especially in Grand Slam tournaments. That changed in September at the U.S. Open, when Frances Tiafoe, 24, knocked him out in the fourth round. Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz beat Nadal later in the fall in other tournaments, when the Spaniard was trying to return late in the season from an abdominal injury.


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


Nadal said he had felt discomfort in his hip in recent days but nothing like what he felt in that crucial moment late in the second set.


“I don’t know what’s going on, if it’s muscle, if it’s joint,” he said. “I have history in the hip. I had to do treatments in the past, address a little. It was not this amount of problem. Now I feel I cannot move.”


Before the injury, McDonald stood on the baseline and beat Nadal at his own game, meeting Nadal’s power and topspin with his own flatter version of it, curling forehands just above the net and sending Nadal chasing the ball from corner to corner. When Nadal hit harder, so did McDonald. He broke Nadal’s serve early in the first and second set and kept Nadal under pressure all day, then remained steady as Nadal played through the pain.


The defeat marked Nadal’s earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament since he lost in the first 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 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 just enough to allow McDonald to catch up to it and take his best rips.


Nadal will likely take a break to get healthy again, then, if he can, turn his focus to the spring clay-court season and the French Open. It is a tournament he has won 14 times, and he calls it the most special of his career.


“I like playing tennis,” he said. “I know it’s not forever. I like to feel myself competitive. I like to fight for the things that I have been fighting for almost half of my life or even more.”


All that success will mean nothing, though, if Nadal can’t maintain his health, something that only gets harder as athletes age.


Ultimately, that may be the one opponent that proves too tough, even for Nadal, but if there is any chance of delaying the inevitable a little longer, he will take it, regardless of the sacrifice.

“When you like do one thing,” he said. “Sacrifices always make sense.”

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