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Mackenzie McDonald Upsets Defending Champion Rafa Nadal in Australian Open Stunner

Rafael Nadal of Spain waves goodbye to the crowd on Rod Laver Arena after losing against Mackenzie McDonald of the United States in his round two singles match during day three of the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images

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.

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.

“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.”

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 cortisone shots to kill 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.