By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal bowed his head during changeovers and rested his elbows on his knees, the very picture of resignation.
What already was a poor start to 2023, following a year marred by all manner of health issues, reached a low point at the Australian Open on Wednesday (Tuesday night PT).
The defending champion and No. 1 seed at Melbourne Park, Nadal injured his left hip and lost his second-round match to former UCLA standout Mackenzie McDonald, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, abruptly ending his bid for a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam trophy.
“It’s a tough moment. It’s a tough day,” said Nadal, a 35-year-old Spaniard. “I can’t say that I am not destroyed mentally at this moment, because I would be lying.”
He pulled up awkwardly at the end of a point late in the second set against the 65th-ranked McDonald.
Nadal was visited by a trainer on the sideline, then left the court for a medical timeout. Up in the stands, his wife wiped away tears. Nadal returned to play, but was physically compromised and not his usual indefatigable self, saying afterward that he could not hit his backhand properly and could not run much, either.
But Nadal added that, as the reigning champion of the tournament, he did not want to leave the court via a mid-match retirement.
He said the hip had been bothering him for a couple of days, but it was never as bad as it became on Wednesday. Nadal was not sure exactly what the nature of the injury was, saying that he will have medical tests to determine if it has to do with a muscle, joint or cartilage.
“He’s an incredible champion. He’s never going to give up, regardless of the situation, so even closing it out against a top guy like that is always tough,” said McDonald, a 27-year-old American who won NCAA championships in singles and doubles for the Bruins in 2016. “I kept focusing on myself in the end and got through.”
This is Nadal’s earliest exit at any Grand Slam tournament since bowing out in the first round in Melbourne in 2016 against No. 45 Fernando Verdasco. That also made Verdasco the lowest-ranked player to defeat Nadal in Australia – until, of course, McDonald on Wednesday.
McDonald has never been past the fourth round at a major tournament. In his lone previous matchup against Nadal, at the 2020 French Open, McDonald won a total of just four games in a lopsided loss.
“He kicked my butt,” McDonald recalled Wednesday.
A year ago, Nadal won the Australian Open for the second time to earn his 21st major championship, then raised his total to 22 – the most for a man – at Roland Garros.
He is currently ranked No. 2 but was the top seed at Melbourne Park because No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz is sitting out the Australian Open with a bad leg.
Nadal’s body has betrayed him quite a bit recently.
He needed pain-killing injections for his left foot on the way to winning the French Open last June, pulled out of Wimbledon last July before the semifinals because of a torn abdominal muscle and also dealt with a problem with rib cartilage in 2022.
Nadal’s exit drains the tournament of yet more star power. In addition to his absence and Alcaraz’s, 2022 Wimbledon runner-up Nick Kyrgios pulled out because his left knee needs arthroscopic surgery, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka is off the tour while she is pregnant, two-time major champ Simona Halep is serving a provisional doping ban and Venus Williams is hurt.
That is all on top of this: 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 with an 0-2 record this season, making him 1-6 dating to September, when he lost to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
Even during a first-round victory Monday, a four-setter against a cramping Jack Draper, Nadal never quite seemed to be at his chase-every-ball, put-every-high-spin-shot-on-target best. He looked, somehow, his age.
The same was the case from the outset against McDonald.
“I’m really happy with how I started that match. I thought I was playing really well, serving great, returning well, too,” McDonald said. “So I was really taking it to him.”
That is true. From the get-go, McDonald was on and Nadal was off.
The very first game served as something of a harbinger: McDonald broke for a 1-0 lead thanks to a trio of unforced errors by Nadal – two off his feared lefty forehand side.
Out of sorts, Nadal got into a back-and-forth with chair umpire Marijana Veljovic during breaks in action about whether she was starting the between-points serve clock too quickly for his liking.
Soon, McDonald was up a set. Then he went up a break right away in the second.
After one point in that set, Nadal showed real signs of trouble. He squatted behind the baseline and placed his racket down on the court. Then he went over and leaned on a sign, prompting Veljovic to ask whether Nadal was OK.
Nadal watched a couple of McDonald’s serves fly past him, then was checked on by the trainer. While the match proceeded, it essentially was over right then and there.
Frances Tiafoe and Jannik Sinner both earned rapid-fire wins in John Cain Arena to book their places in the third round. Tiafoe was a straight-sets winner against China’s Shang Juncheng after Sinner breezed past Tomas Martin Etcheverry, with both matches finishing in less than two hours.
The 16th-seeded Tiafoe was a 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 winner against Shang, who qualified to earn his Grand Slam debut at age 17.
“I played an unbelievable player,” Tiafoe said. “He’s going to be an unbelievable player, he already is a really good player. It’s tough playing someone that young. You know they’re coming for you, but I thought I did a good job. I played really well today.”
Tiafoe finished with 20 aces and 40 winners, and he did not drop serve in the match, saving all four break points against him. He won the final six games of the match and will next face No. 18 seed Karen Khachanov or Australian wild card Jason Kubler.
Sinner, a 21-year-old Italian, earned his second straight-sets victory by breezing past Etcheverry, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
SWIATEK, PEGULA INTO THIRD ROUND
Top-seeded woman Iga Swiatek eased into the third round as she beat Camila Osorio of Colombia, 6-2, 6-3.
In a match played with the roof closed because of rain, the Polish player was broken when serving for the match at 5-1 but sealed the victory two games later.
The reigning French Open and U.S. Open champion will now play either Bianca Andreescu of Canada, the former U.S. Open champion, or Cristina Bucsa of Spain.
“I think it was much tougher than the score says,” Swiatek said. “It was really intense physically. She didn’t give me many points for free.”
“It was tough, but I am happy that I was consistent in being proactive,” she added. “I’m pretty happy that I won and can play the next round.”
Third-seeded American Jessica Pegula was tested by Aliaksandra Sasnovich before coming through, 6-2, 7-6 (5).
Pegula served for the match at 5-4 in the second but was broken, before regrouping to win the tiebreaker. She’ll next play Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine or Olivia Gadecki, a wild-card entry from Australia.
Pegula also has Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin on her mind – and his No. 3 jersey number on her outfit.
Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, is wearing a white screen-printed patch with Hamlin’s uniform number on her black skirt while she competes at the year’s first Grand Slam tournament.
Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated on the field when he collapsed after making a tackle during a game between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2. He spent more than a week in the hospital, part of that time in critical condition, before being able to go home.
“I definitely wanted to do something,” Pegula said after defeating Sasnovich.
“We were kind of figuring out what the Bills and the Sabres were doing, just as far as what was the message. I knew they would probably do something and what message were they trying to send. It ended up being kind of the ‘3’ was the symbol,” said Pegula, a 28-year-old who was born in New York and now is based in Florida.
“I just thought it would be cool to put on my outfit here. I thought it would be a fun way to kind of connect with the team and then also just show my support,” she said. “I felt like it was such a global event.”
Pegula reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open each of the past two years, equaling her best result at any Grand Slam tournament.
She is currently a career-best No. 3 in the rankings – a coincidence that drew some reactions Pegula found amusing.
“I saw someone tweet that: ‘Why would you put your ranking on your skirt?’ I’m, like, ‘No, that’s not why,’” Pegula said with a laugh.
She said she watched the Bills’ victory over the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round on TV before playing her first match in Melbourne.
Sixth-seeded Maria Sakkari survived a test from the 18-year-old Russian qualifier, Diana Shnaider, before advancing, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
The left-handed Shnaider, who is scheduled to attend North Carolina State this fall, saved two match points on her own serve at 5-2 down. But Sakkari held from 0-30 in the next game.
“It was a very high level from both of us, I think she played an amazing match,” Sakkari said. “She’s very young; she’s very promising. Maybe she should consider not going to college and go pro.”
More to come on this story.