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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, January 18, 2023


Mackenzie McDonald shocked hobbled defending-champion Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to reach the Australian Open third round for the second time.

Photo credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty

Rafael Nadal conjured a magical comeback to capture the Australian Open last January.

A mesmerizing Mackenzie McDonald made the hobbled defending champion disappear from Melbourne tonight.

More: Miracle Maker Murray Prevails

In a shocking upset, McDonald pounded the champion's forehand, punished his second serve and left him looking pained. Striking with accuracy, McDonald toppled the top-seeded Spaniard 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to reach the Australian Open third round for the second time in the last three years.

"I'm very happy with how I competed in the first couple of sets and executed the game plan," McDonald told the media in Melbourne. "I feel like when he was kind of hurt there in the third, it made me think a little bit more about the match and stuff and about myself and the game, which I was executing and playing so well in the first couple of sets.

"So I hate that for him. I hope he feels better."

A wounded Nadal suffered a left hip injury in the eighth game of the second set and was clearly compromised in a painful parting that saw his wife, Mery, shed tears from the support box. Nadal went down suffering and fighting until the final ball.

"I have history in the hip that I had issues," Nadal told the media in Melbourne. "I had to do treatments in the past, address a little. Was not this amount of problem.

"Now I feel I cannot move. But I don't know till I do the test and all this stuff, I don't know. Is difficult to make resolution if it's a muscle, if it's the joint, if it's the cartilage. I don't know. Yeah, that's it. By the way, I'm tired to talk about. I understand, but I lost the match. That's it. I tried till the end. I don't know if in good conditions I will win the match, I will have better chances without a doubt. But at the end, that's it."

It's a stunning setback that creates a chasm in the top quarter of the draw. McDonald moves on to meet either 31st-seeded Japanese Yoshihito Nishioka or qualifier Dalibor Svrcina for a spot in the fourth round. No. 16-seeded Frances Tiafoe, who knocked Nadal out of the US Open fourth round last September, may well also benefit from Nadal's departure.

Iconic Big 3 champions Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have combined to collect 17 of the last 19 Australian Open championships. Now, nine-time AO champion Djokovic is the only Big 3 champion still standing in the field as he aims to match Nadal's men's mark by claiming his 22nd Grand Slam title in his Melbourne return.

World No. 65 McDonald is the lowest-ranked man in history to defeat Nadal in his 18 Australian Open appearances and the first American man to beat him at a Grand Slam event outside of the US Open.

Was this Nadal's final Australian Open appearance?

Many in attendance who saluted the 22-time Grand Slam king with a standing ovation as he departed Rod Laver Arena were surely wondering that question.

A limping Nadal left the court near the end of the second set to take a medical timeout for treatment for an apparent left hip injury.

The fact Nadal finished the match on his feet while playing on one strong leg was an achievement given the stinging pain he seemed to suffer.

Afterward, a philosophical Nadal said he's frustrated but trying to maintain his perspective. 

"In the end, I can't complain about my life at all," Nadal said. "So just in terms of sports and in terms of injuries and tough moments, I mean, that's another one. Just can't say that I am not destroyed mentally at this time because I will be lying.

"Yeah, it's hard for me, you know. But let's see. I mean, hopefully is nothing too bad. In the end have been three positive weeks in terms of practice. So I really hope that that don't put me out of the court for a long time, because then it's tough to make all the recovery again. Is not only the recovery. It's all the amount of work that you need to put together to come back at a decent level."

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The pride of Piedmont, California managed just four games in absorbing a 2020 Roland Garros thrashing from the king of clay in their lone prior meeting.

Today, McDonald flipped the script by beating Nadal to the punch and torching flat drives down the line. Showing no signs of fatigue after fighting off compatriot Brandon Nakashima in a four-hour marathon match in round one, McDonald played with calm energy raising his career Grand Slam record to 17-17.

The former UCLA all-American came out with a clear game plan: Challenge Nadal's vaunted forehand, attack his second serve, rob his reaction time by taking the ball on the rise, and crack down the line daggers to stretch the court. Working with coach and former US Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri in his corner, credit McDonald for playing with confidence and clarity. 

"I wanted to go for my shots definitely, I wanted to break down his forehand if I could," McDonald told ESPN's Darren Cahill afterward. "He lifts the ball, I like to go through the court. If I can execute that, I think I can win more points. It was working well." 

Truth be told, McDonald was playing at a level high enough to prevail even if the Roland Garros champion hadn't suffered injury. McDonald broke to open the first and second sets, won 17 of 30 points played on Nadal's second serve and converted four of five break points.

It is Nadal's earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament since he fell to compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the 2016 AO opening round.

Searching for confidence and success, Nadal had won just two of his last eight matches, including a couple of three-set United Cup losses earlier this month. That dismal slide, combined with the pressure of playing to defend a hard-court Grand Slam crown for the first time and the cranky hip, conspired to haunt the top seed.

Ninety-one minutes into the match, Nadal was running left when he pulled up chasing a ball to start the eighth game. Wincing visibly, Nadal dropped to a crouch in apparent left hip pain. McDonald finished the game to hold for 5-3 and Nadal called for the trainer.

After an on-court assessment, Nadal left the court for a three-minute medical timeout. Nadal, who took pain-killing injections to deaden the pain in his foot during his run to a record-extending 14th Roland Garros title last summer, was in no mood for concessions.

Returning to action, Nadal was not moving vigorously, but still managed to hold for 4-5. Gazing across the net at the wounded warrior, McDonald reset.

"It makes you think a little bit," McDonald said of Nadal's injury timeout. "I tried to focus on myself. He got me a little bit out of my rhythm, iced me a bit.

"I regrouped a little bit. I hate that for him. He's a great champion and it's tough to see him end the tournament like that."

Serving for the set, McDonald snatched a two-set lead when Nadal smacked a flat forehand into the net.

The former UCLA all-American glanced over at the defending champion as the pair sat down. Leaning back in his court-side seat, Nadal looked up at the sky and exhaled deeply as if contemplating his condition.

"I consider all the time stopping, but I didn't ask the physiotherapist at the end. I have to know myself," Nadal said. "And I tried to keep playing without increasing the damage. No, that's it. I was not able to hit the backhand at all. I was not able to run for the ball. But I just wanted to finish the match. That's it."

Digging down deep, Nadal climbed off his court-side seat and returned to battle with resolve.

Unsure of his movement, Nadal was unleashing his heaviest forehands of the match in an effort to punctuate points quickly. That tactic helped him build a 4-3 third-set lead.

Deadlocked after eight games, Nadal erased a break point firing his fifth ace down the middle. Nadal curled a crosscourt forehand strike navigating a tense hold for 5-4.

That was temporary reprieve. Nullifying another serve-and-volley attempt, McDonald slipped a running backhand pass down the line breaking for 6-5.

Seeing the finish line, McDonald soared through it. When Nadal nudged a final backhand return into net, McDonald completed the greatest win of his career without any extensive celebration out of respect for the wounded champion. 


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