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Tennis

Rafael Nadal Limps Out Of The Australian Open

4:48 PM EST on January 18, 2023

Rafael Nadal exits the Australian Open
Patrick Hamilton/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

Rafael Nadal's prospects at this Australian Open were already dim. The defending champion and No. 1 seed came into the tournament shaky, having opened his season with two losses to Alex de Minaur and Cam Norrie, two players he'd previously been a combined 7-0 against. But ruling out Rafa at a major tournament is futile. Last season he won two, and made the semifinal at a third while dealing with an abdominal tear. The injury he suffered Wednesday proved too much to fight through, even if Nadal did see the match to its conclusion.

Nadal cleared a trickier-than-usual hurdle in his first-round match: Jack Draper, a young lefty with big power and recent wins. On paper, Nadal's second-round opponent Mackie McDonald didn't have the tools to really threaten him. In practice, the short-statured, flat-hitting McDonald leaned into his aggression, thriving on the quick courts, and seized a set-and-a-break lead without too much pain. McDonald's position was reasonably secure even before the 3-4 game in the second, when Nadal ran for a ball to his left, and came up wincing and limping with pain in his left hip.

After a medical timeout, Nadal picked up his racquet again. Every minute he played from there was just a stubborn step away from withdrawal. He did not shake hands after losing the second set. Instead, he flattened his whippy topspin forehand into an unrecognizable slap-shot in an attempt to shorten the points, and mixed in a little serve-and-volley. Nadal couldn't move, but his spot serving genuinely improved over the course of the third set. This bricolage worked just well enough that McDonald, who admitted afterward that his focus was shaken by the injury, didn't manage to break serve until the tail end of the third, winning 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

"I was not able to hit the backhand at all, and I was not able to run for the ball. I just wanted to finish the match, that's it," Nadal said in his post-match conference. "I didn't want to retire, to be the defending champion here, I didn't want to leave the court with the retirement. Better like this at the end." He said that he'd had issues with his hip in the past, and even over the last few days, but nothing of this severity until that specific moment. Nadal said he wouldn't understand the nature of the injury until an actual medical evaluation.

If you haven't listened to a Rafael Nadal press conference before, I'd recommend it, though this one is a sad place to start. Not much is concealed. "I can't say that I am not destroyed, mentally, at this time, because I will be lying," he said.

"I was understanding better the things that I had to do to overcome the situation," Nadal said of regaining his footing in the match, right before the hip injury. "But doesn't matter now. We can explain or talk—if, if. This word, 'if,' I don't like a lot. Because 'if,' in a sport, or in life in general, don't make a lot of sense. At the end, I am out of the tournament, he is in the third round, so well done for him. He was playing at a great level of tennis, and life continues for me."

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