Rafael Nadal loses at Australian Open, injured and ‘destroyed’

Rafael Nadal
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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.

The defending champion and No. 1 seed at Melbourne Park, Nadal injured his left hip and lost to Mackenzie McDonald 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in the second round, 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 36-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 clearly 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.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men

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.

“‘It’s never over until it’s over’ type thing. He didn’t even want to roll over and quit. He kept fighting until basically the end, even though he maybe didn’t have all his game,” said McDonald, a 27-year-old American who won NCAA championships in singles and doubles for UCLA in 2016.

“I was in the locker room,” McDonald said about the aftermath of the match, “and I was like, ‘Hey, that’s actually really big for me, because I haven’t beaten someone of that caliber.’”

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.

This result overshadowed everything else going on in Melbourne, of course, on a day that persistent rain pushed back the start of play on all but the three courts with retractable roofs until after 5 p.m. local time.

That meant some players — most notably, No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No. 3 Jessica Pegula and No. 6 Maria Sakkari — won matches that put them in the third round before more than a dozen others even had contested a single point in the first round. At night, 18-year-old American Coco Gauff swept 2021 U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu 6-3, 7-6 (4) in the second round,

Men joining McDonald in the third round included fellow American Frances Tiafoe, who is seeded 16th, and No. 15 Jannik Sinner of Italy.

“I told him, ’You’re going to be in a position to win today. You can win today,” Tiafoe said about McDonald. “Sort of seeing how he feels, I’m happy for Mackie. ’GOAT wins’ don’t come easy. Something to tell his grandkids one day, and you have to be happy for that guy.”

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 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, Nadal was off.

The very first game served as something of a harbinger: McDonald broke for a 1-0 lead thanks 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 serves off McDonald’s racket fly past him, then was checked on by the trainer. While the match would proceed, it essentially was over right then and there.

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Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Isabeau Levito wins U.S. figure skating title at age 15, followed by comeback stories

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Isabeau Levito won her first U.S. figure skating title at age 15, cementing her status as the new leading American woman to open the new Olympic cycle.

Levito, the world junior champion, tallied 223.33 points between two strong programs in San Jose, California. She distanced two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who went 19 months between competitions due to foot and ankle injuries in 2021 and 2022 and scored 213.12.

Tennell was just two hundredths behind Levito after Thursday’s short but had multiple jumping errors in the free skate.

Levito followed her as last to go in the free and nailed the most pressure-packed performance of her young career, including the hardest jump combination done of the entire field. She didn’t receive a single negative mark from a judge for her 19 technical elements in her two programs.

Moments later, she was in tears backstage.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

“I was just so proud of myself for staying so calm and staying so focused, doing exactly what I aimed to do,” Levito, who hasn’t finished off the podium in more than 20 events dating to November 2016, said on NBC. “I’m ready to start bouncing off the walls.”

Amber Glenn, 23, placed third and will likely become the oldest U.S. women’s singles skater to make her world championships debut in at least 45 years. Glenn botched her 11th attempt to join the list of U.S. women to land a clean triple Axel (tally according to Skatingscores.com) but still moved up from fourth after the short program, passing Starr Andrews.

Last year, Glenn entered nationals as the fourth-ranked U.S. woman and a hopeful for the three-woman Olympic team. She placed 14th in the short program, competing unknowingly with COVID-19, then tested positive and withdrew before the free skate.

In 2021, Glenn was the U.S. silver medalist, yet passed over for a spot on the two-woman world team in favor of the more experienced Karen Chen, who finished 35 hundredths behind Glenn at those nationals.

Levito, Tennell and Glenn are expected to make up the team for March’s world championships, decided by a committee.

Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fifth after the short program, popped a pair of planned triple Lutzes and dropped to eighth.

None of the three 2022 U.S. Olympians competed. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell retired. Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return.

Nationals continue Saturday with the free dance and pairs’ free skate, live on NBC Sports and Peacock.

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