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HIGHLIGHTS: Rafael Nadal's three-set loss to Mackenzie McDonald

Hi Steve,

Well, there are upsets, and then there are upsets. Day 3 of the Australian Open saw one that was as big as they come, with world No. 65 Mackenzie McDonald taking down top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

There was a mitigating factor, of course: Nadal hurt his left hip at 4-3 in the second set. Following that game, Nadal took an injury timeout, left the court for treatment, and soon dropped the second set. From that point on, Nadal appeared hobbled, particularly when moving to his backhand. Aware that he couldn’t patrol the court with his customary sweep, Nadal took many steps to shorten the points, from lacerating big forehands to intermittent serve-and-volley to the extraordinarily rare tactic of charging the net off a few returns.

Let’s first credit McDonald for his composure. The only previous time he’d played Nadal had come at Roland Garros, in the fall of 2020. Nadal won that second round match, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3, a brisk, 100-minute clay-court education. Inside Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday afternoon, McDonald was composed from the start. With depth, precision, and patience, he settled into a well-grooved tempo—all signs of a longstanding commitment to fitness off the court and hard work on it, most recently with coach Robby Ginepri.

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McDonald said that after watching Fritz beat Nadal in Indian Wells, and Tiafoe do the same at the US Open, he knew that an upset of this magnitude was within the realm of possibility.

McDonald said that after watching Fritz beat Nadal in Indian Wells, and Tiafoe do the same at the US Open, he knew that an upset of this magnitude was within the realm of possibility.

Following Nadal’s injury time-out, McDonald faced the perennial quandary of competing against an injured opponent. Should the healthy player drive for the corners or keep the ball in play? How much would Nadal lash out the ball? Would Rafa soon enough feel better and close the window of opportunity? And what about the macro challenge of taking on the defending champion and all-time Slam leader in this setting?

Though certainly there were some hiccups, McDonald proved sturdy enough to both find and cross the finish line. I’m not surprised, having known Mackie since he was a child as members of the Berkeley Tennis Club. When Mackie was 11, we played singles. Not only did he handily beat me, but he did so with exceptional poise and court sense. Since then, we’ve spoken intermittently, both at the club and at various tournaments. There has always been a quality to Mackie that’s kind, direct, sincere and engaged. All of those attributes have aided his growth as a pro, including an impressive comeback from career-threatening hamstring injury he suffered in 2019.

Of course, this hasn’t been the first time we’ve witnessed Nadal struggling with pain. But from my standpoint, there was something sadder than usual about this exit. Call Nadal’s 2022 one of ecstasy and agony: There were two Grand Slam titles and the arrival of his son, but then there was one health matter after another—from COVID to a cracked rib to a recurrence of a chronic foot issue to an abdominal tear. Toss in the emotionally implicating aspect of being front and center for Roger Federer’s retirement, and that’s a lot to take in. And now, in only the third week of 2023, comes this injury of an uncertain nature. “Learn to suffer” is Nadal’s advice to ambitious tennis players. Who in tennis has a greater first-hand awareness of that than Nadal?

Steve, what were your thoughts as you watched the match unfold?

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Nadal's extended exit had the feel of a final walk off from a particular stage.

Nadal's extended exit had the feel of a final walk off from a particular stage.

Hi Joel,

My first thought after watching Rafa’s defeat is that curses at tournaments die hard, and his at the Australian Open seems to have returned. Over the years, we’ve see his campaigns Down Under end in injury against Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka and maybe a couple of others I can’t recall right now. Now we can add McDonald to that list.

My second thought is that it was a particularly unfortunate time for Rafa to get injured, at 3-4 in the second set. He hadn’t played well up to that stage, and he had just been broken. But he had also settled into the match. More important, after a flying start, McDonald had come down to earth. We’ve seen that pattern play out in Nadal’s favor hundreds of times: Opponent has nothing to lose, knows he has to be aggressive, does it flawlessly for a set, but can’t do it flawlessly for two, let alone three. The end result is that Nadal grinds away long enough to escape with a win.

Instead, this match went much like his loss to Wawrinka in the 2014 Aussie Open final. Rafa staggered through the last set, forcing his opponent to hold his nerve against a wounded legend, while also giving him a chance to finish the job and savor the moment. Credit Mackie, like Stan, for holding his nerve long enough to record his biggest victory.

Credit McDonald also for coming out with a lot of positive energy, a proactive plan, and the ball-striking skills to make it work. He was the far better player for the first set and a half. When you talk to the American guys, they always say that when they watch one of their countrymen get a big win, they immediately realize they can do the same thing. This was the first time that I really saw that effect in action. McDonald said that after watching Taylor Fritz beat Nadal in Indian Wells, and Frances Tiafoe do the same at the US Open, an upset of this magnitude was within the realm of possibility. Mackie has always been one of the smoothest hitters around, and he has the perfect on-the-rise two-handed backhand for Rafa. It’s nice to see him put his talents to use in such a big way on such a big stage.

Joel, what do you think this upset does for the tournament, and does it change how you imagine Rafa’s future?

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Steve,

To answer the second question first: Not at all. Which may be one of the macro lessons of Nadal’s frequent injuries and subsequent comebacks—the need to resist conjecture on what’s to come.

“I never think of the future,” said Albert Einstein. “It comes soon enough.” As a start, in Nadal’s case, we all know that at this stage of his career, he typically does not return to competition until the latter half of February. He now enters his all-too-familiar diagnosis and recovery phase.

“So I went through this process too many times in my career,” Nadal said after the match, “and I am ready to keep doing, I think, but that's not easy, without a doubt.” As Doris Day sang, “que sera, que sera, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see.”

For the tournament, the second-round exit of its number one seed, defending champion, and global superstar is unfortunate. Sure, there will continue to be packed stands, lively crowds and millions watching the Australian Open around the world. But for me and certainly for many others, the presence of Nadal at a major adds considerable snap, crackle and pop. If you’re at the tournament, merely watching his high-intensity practice sessions is a treat. And then there are the matches: the raw, inspired, matador-like zeal Nadal brings to competition that has rarely been matched by anyone in tennis history.

We all know that in any Nadal match, there will come numerous moments of transcendent shot-making—an incredible forehand on the run, an amazing dash forward, a leaping volley. All of that will be missed. Of course, other contenders will surface, their path and possibilities now altered by Nadal’s absence. But as Nadal and many others have taught me, there’s no point in looking too far ahead.

So with Nadal out, what else in these early days of the tournament has intrigued you, Steve?

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Gauff and Pegula find themselves as title contenders amidst an early wave of U.S. success.

Gauff and Pegula find themselves as title contenders amidst an early wave of U.S. success.

Joel,

It’s true, we’ve been here before many times with Nadal. He leaves Australia looking like he’s on his last legs, and then by mid-June he’s winning Roland Garros without dropping a set. Even at 36, there’s no reason he can’t make that happen again. I think he’s committed to at least play this year out, whatever may come. But I will say that his extended exit last night did have the feel of a final walk off from that particular stage. It does seem possible that this may have been his last trip Down Under.

Like you said, Nadal’s exit is deflating for the men’s event. There are many other story lines to follow, of course, but his quest for major No. 23 was bound to be among the most dramatic, and one that would have drawn more eyeballs from the non-tennis world. I like McDonald, but his third-rounder with Yoshihito Nishioka isn’t going to have quite the same buzz as a Rafa match would, and is destined for a side court.

That said, the top seed’s loss should allow other, fresher storylines to develop soon enough. Most prominent among them to me is Frances Tiafoe’s. The American is playing the tennis of his life right now, and he was slated to meet Nadal in the fourth round. Tiafoe faces a strong opponent, Karen Khachanov, in his next match. How will he—and Khachanov, for that matter—react to having that unexpected golden opportunity suddenly plopped down in front of him?

Tiafoe’s story feeds into one that we’ll hear more about in the coming days: How far can this big wave of American players go? They tend to come out in force for the first week of a Slam, and then gradually disappear by the middle of the second week. But that hasn’t been true on the women’s side Down Under in recent years, where Sofia Kenin, Jen Brady and Danielle Collins have all reached the final. I’m looking forward to seeing whether another U.S. player—perhaps Coco Gauff, or Jessica Pegula, or Madison Keys or Collins again—can follow in that new tradition on the women’s side. All of the names I just mentioned are in the top half, which means that to make the final, one of them will likely have to knock off Iga Swiatek.

We’ll see. I won’t argue against Einstein, or Doris Day for that matter, when it comes to looking ahead.

What has caught your eye so far in Australia, Joel?

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With Nadal eliminated, Tiafoe has a major opportunity in Oz.

With Nadal eliminated, Tiafoe has a major opportunity in Oz.

Steve,

Agree with you very much about Tiafoe. His improvement over the last few months is one of tennis’ major stories. From a viewer standpoint, the way Tiafoe wins matches—the movement, the choices, the power, the touch, the execution, all fueled by his sheer love of competing in front of people—is tremendously exciting.

It’s also been great to see Novak Djokovic, back in Australia, warmly greeted by the fans and thoroughly in the groove during his opening match. But while Djokovic has conducted business as usual, it was quite the opposite during the dazzling epic played by Andy Murray and Matteo Berrettini. I like both of these players—but for different reasons, ranging from the sharpness of Murray’s tennis mind to the passion and warmth Berrettini brings to his matches. To trot out the cliché, it was a shame someone had to lose.

The weather has also thrown a wrinkle into the tournament that could have implications in the days to come. Marquee players such as Djokovic, Swiatek and Gauff have been scheduled to play on courts with roofs—the competitive equivalent of a non-stop flight, providing a smooth path forward through their early matches and beyond. For the vast majority, though, that saying about Melbourne—“four seasons in a day”—has proven painfully prophetic. Everything from severe heat to rain has triggered frequent delays, scheduling challenges and a great many of those stressful stop-and-start moments. The resulting backlog could create a significant recovery challenge for many players.

Steve, what do you think makes the first week of the Australian Open different than the first week of other majors?

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Has Collins' fire actually helped tennis loosen up?

Has Collins' fire actually helped tennis loosen up?

Joel,

From a personal standpoint, as an Eastern Standard Time dweller, the most unique quality of the Australian Open is the most obvious one: The time difference. I’ve been to the event on half a dozen occasions, but there’s still nothing like waking up in the morning, flicking on the TV, having no idea what you’re going to see, and then instantly finding yourself knee deep in the middle of an epic.

This morning was a good example. After doing my best to make sense of the Rafa news, I cleared my head and caught up with Collins and Karolina Muchova at the start of their third set. This wasn’t an epic as much as it was a very hard scrap between two players who weren’t holding anything back, physically or emotionally, and who weren’t letting their mistakes drag them down. Nothing came easily, but neither was going to cave. The match deserved a deciding tiebreak, and it got one.

Of course, it will be remembered for what happened to Collins in that tiebreak. When she went up 7-3, she dropped her racquet and threw her arms over her head in celebration—she thought she had won. The look of dawning recognition on her face as the chair umpire told her that, no, the match wasn’t over and she needed to get to 10 points, was priceless:

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Collins was a good sport about it afterward, having a laugh at her own absent-mindedness—she may have had a different reaction if she had lost, of course. Her two tough victories this week have remained me of the unique quality she brings to the sport.

Like a lot of fans, I wasn’t sure what to make of her at first. She was loud, she was in-your-face, and her game was equally unsubtle. But I’ve come to like her unapologetic fierceness, and the wham of that top-handed backhand. The woman who happily goes by Danimal will never have the smoothest game, but her desire, and her complete lack of self-consciousness about showing it, draws you in. In some way, she helps tennis loosen up.

Onward from here, Joel. There’s much more to come.