“AIl has come to a crunching end for Rafa Nadal,” said British broadcaster Candy Reid. “His defense of the Australian Open has come to a sudden end.”
The great man, the Spanish conquistador, soon was offering a poignant, dispirited wave to 15,000 adoring Australians. Moments later the man who’s given such magic to his sport was slowly hobbling through the Australian Open Walk of Champions – alone, in defeat and broken.
The man who from 2012 to 2021 lost only once to an American (Sam Querrey) fell for the fifth straight time to an American. The steady Northern Californian craftsman Mackie McDonald downed him 6-4, 6-4,7-5.
Laver Arena was stunned.
After all, Nadal was not only the defending champion and the No. 1 seed, he’s a ferocious Spanish bull, a warrior whose brand is to defy logic.
As a little known teen, he knocked off Andy Roddick in a Davis Cup final before 27,500 ecstatic Spaniards in a Seville soccer stadium. He soon set off on not only becoming the king of clay, but proving he could also dominate on hard courts and grass. In the greatest match of all time, he downed his fierce foe Roger Federer in the Wimbledon dusk.
But the conventional wisdom was that his whiplash, almost violent playing style would do him in. Surely he wouldn’t last. And early in his career, Rafa’s left foot and much of his body repeatedly torpedoed his hopes.
But, except for Ms. Serena, there is no other tennis player who so adores the battle, who so often calls on the greatest tonic in sports: will power, intent and desire.
Rafa not only ruled on clay. He’s won 14 French Opens. And he scored “the miracle in Melbourne” last year when he came back from two sets down against Daniil Medvedev to somehow capture the title.
Yes, coming into the 2022 Aussie Open he’d struggled. He’d lost six of his last eight matches and none this year. In the first round he barely prevailed over the young Brit Jack Draper.
He told us he had to be humble about his struggles. Then again, it wouldn’t be a Nadal Slam without drama and pathos.
But going into the second round, the stats sheet told us Nadal had won 92 tourneys in his career, while Mackie McDonald, the Pride of Piedmont, California who developed his game at the Claremont Resort – hadn’t won any.
Rafa, 36, had claimed 77 Aussie Open matches, Mackie had won 7. Plus, McDonald was 1-13 versus top ten players and the only time he’d played Nadal before he was crushed. But that was on Rafa’s home court – Roland Garros – and rare is the day when the clay meister is defied in Paris.
Rafa Nadal is not the only tennis player who knows intimately the power of pain. In 2019 at the French Open, Mackenzie McDonald’s hamstring was almost pulled off his bone. In agony, he cried every day during a lengthy rehab. He said that only his girlfriend’s chihuahua got him through.
For the rest of the year, his career was put on pause. The prospect who’d made deep runs to the fourth round at Wimbledon and the Aussie Open now had to craft a tedious comeback to the big leagues. And when he saw this year’s Melbourne draw, he certainly he must have thought just one thing: “Grrr!”
First he’d have to play the young, rising Brandon Nakashima. It took him five long sets to get past his fellow Californian, only to have to face the mighty Rafa in the second round.
Still, in mid-career, the quiet, composed American of Chinese, Scottish and English descent, liked his chances.
Never mind that he was ranked No. 65 in the world. The UCLA grad, who’d won NCAA singles and doubles crowns, came out of the gate fast and seamlessly. He quickly broke Nadal and raced to a 5-1 lead. John McEnroe quipped, “The last couple of months, Rafa’s not been the same guy. It was like watching Tom Brady last night.”
Nadal did counterattack, but to no avail. Mackie claimed the first set 6-4, and went up 2-0 in the second set. Rafa, unhappy and out of sorts, puffed his cheeks out and shook his head as he repeatedly complained to the ump about the shot clock rule. “This is as frustrated as you will ever see him,” ESPN told us. Then finally we saw a brief, pure Nadalian surge.
He steadied his mind, his confidence grew, he started to dictate. His forehand imposed. His fighting spirit was on full display. As he’d done so many times before, surely he’d turn the match around.
Then disaster struck. At 4-3 in the second set, Rafa suddenly pulled up lame. His left hip seemed to implode. Pain and sorrow filled his face. He took a medical time out. Certainly he got some pain killers. But the mighty battler could no longer unleash his sprints. There was no chance he could impose his fearsome physicality.
Yes, he could still blast the occasional slingshot forehand, flick a stunning winner or blast a random overhead. But Mackie was in control. Calmly, McDonald (who told Inside Tennis that he’d crafted a game plan with the help of his fellow American Tommy Paul) marched to a seemingly inevitable victory over the wounded warrior.
Rafa’s handlers were stunned. A torrent of tears streamed down the face of his wife Maria. “It’s a shock to see the defending champion in this kind of state,” reported Australian Open Radio. “But he goes on…Rafa has so much respect for this court, for his fans, the tournament, and the whole of the tennis world.”
But the man who’d won more Slams than anyone else was now broken. Still, his fans across the globe couldn’t help but wonder what might have been in Melbourne if Rafa’s body hadn’t betrayed him.
But Nadal was defiant. He told the media, “This word ‘if,’ I don’t like it a lot, because ‘if’ in sports or in life it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”