In 2009, Rafael Nadal won his first hard-court major at the Australian Open. He sealed it with a five-set win over Roger Federer, the career rival he also defeated in the Roland Garros and Wimbledon finals the previous year. The capstone of this sequence of events demanded that we ask if the younger Nadal, and not the more decorated Federer, was the game’s greatest player.
Apparently, that breakthrough victory did not come without a price. For ever since, the Australian Open has become Nadal’s personal black cloud. Each year this decade, it’s been something different for the Spaniard in Melbourne. In 2010 he retired in the quarterfinals; at the same stage in 2011, with an opportunity to hold all four Slams at once, he was not himself against David Ferrer. In two of the last three years, Nadal has reached the Aussie Open final, but on both occasions lost in painful fashion (nearly six hours to Novak Djokovic in 2012, and in four compromised sets to Stan Wawrinka in 2014). He was unable to play the tournament at all in 2013.
It truly feels like Rafa sold his soul to win the 2009 title.
For large portions of Nadal’s second-round match on Wednesday, against the 112th-ranked qualifier Tim Smyczek, that familiar cloud hung over him. Rafa was in obvious discomfort through most of the evening, appearing to get sick on court at one point. John McEnroe reported that his bout with illness began after the first set of this four-hour and 12-minute struggle.