MELBOURNE, Australia — For nearly two decades, American men have been all but helpless against Rafael Nadal, especially at Grand Slam tournaments.
Now, seemingly, they have his number.
Down one set and on the ropes against Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open on Wednesday, Nadal pulled up lame 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. He then crouched in the corner to catch his breath, returning moments later to continue the game.
He could do nothing more than watch 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 prevail over an ailing legend.
The injury came after McDonald, a former U.C.L.A. Bruin, 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 on the court, left to receive medical treatment for what appeared to be an injury to his midsection, near his right hip, then returned and played on.
He 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 second 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 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 extra few moments too turn and wave to the crowd.
For Nadal, the defending Australian Open champion, the loss was the latest in a string of defeats that have plagued him as he has battled injuries and a wounded psyche recently. 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 36-year-old body is banged up from playing an incredibly physical style over his career, is as vulnerable as he has been at any point in his career.
The American success against Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, started 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.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’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 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 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 with his own, curling forehands just above the net 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 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 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 just enough to allow McDonald to catch up to it and take his best rips.
Nadal has experienced all the highs and lows of the sport during the last 18 months. He missed most of the second half of 2021 because of a series of injuries, then ventured to Melbourne a year ago, just seven weeks after being on crutches. With his foot chronically injured, he thought then it might be his last opportunity to play in Australia.
He quickly returned to form and won the final in Melbourne after being two sets down against Daniil Medvedev of Russia. For the first time in 13 years, he was the Australian Open champion.
At 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 had to withdraw before the semifinals because of the torn abdominal.
He played just one hardcourt match before the U.S. Open and lost to Tiafoe in four sets in the fourth round. Tiafoe was the first American-born player to beat Nadal at a Grand Slam since Nadal was a teenager.
In late September, Nadal partnered with Roger Federer in the Swiss champion’s final competitive match. Nadal tried to get healthy for two late-season indoor tournaments, neither of which went well.
Nadal arrived in Australia in December to play for Spain in the inaugural United Cup, a rare competition with both men and women. He lost both of his matches, extending one of the roughest stretches of his career.
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 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 may be the one opponent that proves too tough, even for Nadal.