‘It’s a tough day’: Nadal blow takes waiting game to next level

Rafael Nadal, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Coco Gauff took centre stage on Wednesday.

Rafael Nadal, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Coco Gauff took centre stage on Wednesday.

As if the rain that wiped out all play on Melbourne Park’s outside courts until evening on Wednesday wasn’t bad enough, at 5.30pm came the mightiest of blows to the Australian Open 2023.

Defending champion Rafael Nadal, he of 22 major crowns, crashed out, hampered by a hurt hip but in truth floundering badly against the American journeyman Mackenzie McDonald long before the match-defining damage.

The 36-year-old Rafa wasn’t at the races from the off, but playing an injured opponent is rarely the bonus it might be and McDonald was unable to seize the moment, Nadal forgoing any running for wild swings at the ball.

It could not last. The Spaniard’s routine was shattered, his service reduced to a quick bounce or two of the ball before a blast down the middle.

The Nadal team fretted from the stands for an hour before their man finally lost in two hours 32 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.

The hip injury that restricted Rafael Nadal on Wednesday puts his longevity in question. Photo: Getty

It begged the question whether we will see the Spaniard again as a competitor at Melbourne Park.

He has been in Australia for several weeks, first in a losing run at the United Cup and now out in round two in Melbourne.

Afterwards an imperious and deeply impressive Nadal was all humility and context.

Yes the hip did it for him, he said, whether it’s a muscle or joint injury he didn’t seem to care. Abandoning the match was never an option. All that matters now is to pick himself up.

“Tomorrow starts another day. Now it’s a tough moment. It’s a tough day, and you need to accept that, and keep going,” he said.

What sustains him, he was asked (a new slant on ‘when will you retire’)?

“It’s very simple,” replied the great man. “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. And that’s it. It’s not that complicated to understand, no?

“Just try your best till the end, doesn’t matter the chances that you have. That’s the philosophy of the sport. I tried to follow that during all my tennis career.”

Win or lose, he stands a star apart.

Medvedev ends Millmania

John Millman had a tough night against Daniil Medvedev. Photo: Getty

There was early hope last night that Queensland’s John Millman might challenge the man beaten by Nadal in last year’s final, Daniil Medvedev.

A match that might well have been played on RLA was allocated to Margaret Court Arena, a pity given the immense qualities and box office appeal of both men.

The Russian, a new father, was not about to let Millman – ranked 148 after injuries blighted his ranking last year – stop his charge to the title and deservedly came home 7-5 6-2 6-2.

Much as he rallied well Millman was unable to challenge the accuracy and ferocity of the Russian’s backcourt play and it would be foolish to bet against Medvedev even at this early stage.

Like Nadal, 33-year-old Millman’s future is in some doubt now. When he goes, and hopefully it is not this year, he will be greatly missed. An outstanding servant to Australian tennis.

Top of the pops

One man to match Millman in the popularity stakes is Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Almost 24 hours since he was just five points away from a first-round win over Italy’s Fabio Fognini, Kokkinakis took just three minutes to complete the task on Kia Arena at 8.45pm.

The South Australian’s 6-1 6-2 6-2 victory, while throughly deserved, was tainted slightly by a dreadful performance from Fognini whose mind seemed elsewhere from first ball to last.

It matters not, Kokkinakis is in sterling form and now faces the veteran, and winner of three majors, Andy Murray.

Kokkinakis has a challenge on his hands to beat the tough veteran Andy Murray. Photo: Getty

Murray is 36 years old and has a replacement hip and history will view him as one of his sport’s very toughest champions.

They have met just once previously, almost eight years ago in a Davis Cup clash won easily by Murray, and this result can be discounted.

Kokkinakis, at 26, is a young man of promise more than achievement still and like Murray has been bedevilled by serious and crippling injury.

The effervescent Kokkinakis – a very good player – must win though to take his game to the next level. He has never gone beyond round two at the AO.

“I’m going to be ready for the best version of Murray, and yeah, I’m going to go out there and play my game, play aggressive and hopefully come out best,” Kokkinakis said.

It will be the last match on Margaret Court Arena on Thursday night. Heavyweight.

Other Aussies in action

Alexei Popyrin is on court again on Thursday. Photo: Getty

Watch out too for Alexei Popyrin and Alex de Minaur who play on John Cain Arena on Thursday, with Novak Djokovic in prime slot on RLA.

After leading by a set and waiting a whole day to finish the match due to rain, qualifier Max Purcell went down in four sets to Finland’s Emil Ruusuvuori, a decent display against the world No.46.

The other Aussie qualifier, Alex Vukic was another casualty, going down in five sets to American qualifier Brandon Holt (whose mother older fans will remember as former world No.1 Tracy Austin) in another overnight delayed match.

Fellow Queenslander Jason Kubler put up a good fight against 18th seed Karen Khachanov (Nick Kyrgios’s victor at last year’s US Open) on John Cain Arena but went down in four sets. A fighter, he can hold his head high.

Late in the evening there were two more Aussie fallers, Rinky Hijikata going down to fan favourite Stefanos Tsitsipas for the loss of just five games, while Olivia Gadecki could not find her sublime round-one form and went out to Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, winning just three games.

Coco too good

The glamour contest of the day took part on RLA at 7pm, the much-hyped teenager and seventh seed Coco Gauff seeing off Britain’s Emma Raducanu, much lower ranked at 77 but winner of the US Open singles title in September 2021, in two sets.

Gauff, who beat defending champion Naomi Osaka here as a 15-year-old three years ago, is a genuine contender in Melbourne this year.

Sixth seed Felix Auger Aliassime was so nearly another major casualty, dropping the first two sets to Slovakia’s Alex Molcan before pulling himself together to drop just eight games in the last three sets.

The Canadian is in the same half the draw as Nadal and will fancy his chances of a decent run in Melbourne this month.

Dry spell over

The ball kids’ towels were replaced by high-tech rollers on Wednesday. Photo: Getty

Meanwhile, the swarm of ball kids seen frenetically helping dry Kia Arena with towels on Tuesday night are already the victims of automation.

Two high-tech VAPTR rollers, which can soak up vast tracts of moisture at a much higher speed while leaving a visible dry trail, were instead being used to dry the court.

Ultimate success though depends on the rain stopping, which failed to happen – hence no play until early evening despite the new techie gear.

Aces pass the time

Rod Laver Arena during the Australian Open is more than just a sports and entertainment hub.

Duck behind ground-floor security and a set of escalators takes players, family and entourages up to a gleaming floor-to-ceiling restaurant looking out towards John Cain Arena, the MCG to the left, South Yarra on the right.

Italian Jannik Sinner had plenty of time after his match to relax at Melbourne Park. Photo: Getty

There was not a seat to be found mid-afternoon on Wednesday, all tables and seated areas packed, chatter full on, inactivity high as everyone waited for the rain to cease.

There is the odd TV screen for the keenest to keep up with Rafa on RLA or Felix out on Margaret Court Arena, but really no one was paying attention.

Jannik Sinner, one of the few players active (a winner in three sets) sat at a long table with his mates, while coaches Wayne Ferreira (who looks after Frances Tiafoe) and Jurgen Metzer – the only man to ever beat Novak Djokovic from two sets down – mooched about.

Dress code was sports smart, everyone wore trainers, people pushed food and drinks and about, stuck for what to do. The concrete grey outside offered little upside, fluttering flags revealing a chill to add to the moisture.

It was not a day for tennis and frustrated spectators can take solace in that they were not alone in their frustration. It was, until about 6pm, simply a day for doing very little.

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