Tennis: Age could be the toughest opponent for ailing Nadal

Rafael Nadal pulled up lame while chasing down a shot in the eighth game of the second set. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE – For nearly two decades, tennis players have been mostly helpless against Rafael Nadal, especially at Grand Slams.

Now, seemingly, they have his number.

Down one set and on the ropes against Mackenzie McDonald in the Australian Open second round on Wednesday, Nadal pulled up lame while chasing down a shot in the eighth game of the second set.

His eyes, filled with concern, immediately turned to his coaches seated courtside at Rod Laver Arena. Nadal then crouched in the corner to catch his breath, returning moments later to continue the game.

The 36-year-old could do nothing more than watch two aces blaze by, bringing him to the brink of going down 2-0 against McDonald, who has never cracked the top 40 in the world rankings.

The American had played the match of his life for nearly two sets, then did what he needed to do to prevail over an ailing legend.

Nadal, the No. 1 seed, had called for a trainer on the court, left to receive medical treatment for what appeared to be an injury to his midsection, near his right hip, then returned and played on.

But he struggled to move, chase after balls and could barely generate power from his backhand.

He somehow stayed even with his opponent through the first 10 games of the third set, hobbling around, taking wild cuts to try to end points quickly.

But McDonald, 27, put just enough shots out of Nadal’s reach to break his serve in the 11th, then clinched the match 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 when his opponent netted one last backhand return.

When it was over, Nadal left to a rousing ovation, taking an extra few moments to turn and wave to the crowd.

“I don’t know what’s going on, if it’s muscle, if it’s joint,” said the Spaniard.

“I have a history (of) hip issues. But it was not this amount of problem. Now I feel I cannot move. I was not able to hit the backhand at all. I was not able to run for the ball. I just wanted to finish the match.

“(I) just can’t say that I am not destroyed mentally at this time, because I will be lying.”

Asked why he kept going, Nadal added: “I didn’t want to retire, as defending champion here. I didn’t want to leave the court with a retirement.

“It’s a very simple thing: I like what I do. I like playing tennis. I know it’s not forever.

“I like to feel myself competitive. I like to fight for the things that I have been fighting for almost half of my life or even more. It’s not that complicated to understand.”

The loss was the latest in a string of defeats that have plagued him as he has battled injuries and a wounded psyche recently. He also has had to adjust to fatherhood after the birth of his first child, a son, in October.

Nadal had lost six of his previous seven matches coming into the tournament, with several of those coming against a younger generation of players.

Once they would have been awed playing against a nearly unbeatable opponent. Now, they walk onto the court knowing that Nadal is vulnerable.

All afternoon McDonald stood on the baseline and beat Nadal at his own game, meeting the veteran’s power and topspin with his own, curling forehands just above the net and sending Nadal chasing the ball from corner to corner.

When Nadal hit harder, so did McDonald. He kept Nadal under pressure all day, then remained steady as the Spaniard played through the pain.

As fans were left saddened by Nadal’s loss, his wife Mery was in tears at Rod Laver Arena.

The defeat also marked his earliest exit from a Grand Slam since he lost in the first round of the Australian Open seven years ago.

Nadal will likely take a break to get healthy again, then turn his focus to the French Open, which he has won 14 times and has been the most special for him.

All that success will mean nothing, though, if Nadal is not able to maintain his health, which only gets harder as athletes age.

Ultimately, that may be the one opponent that proves too tough, even for the 22-time Grand Slam champion.

But if there is any chance of delaying the inevitable a little longer, he will take it, regardless of the sacrifice.

“When you like (to) do one thing,” he said. “Sacrifices always make sense.” NYTIMES, AFP, REUTERS

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