There comes a point in every athlete’s career when reality finally strikes. The mind is writing cheques the body can no longer encash. The will and determination to succeed at the highest level are still ever-present, but the god-gifted powers are slowly waning. Unfortunately, with his latest defeat at the Australian Open, that reality may be just around the corner for Rafael Nadal.
The Spaniard has defied father time for the majority of his career, stretching his talents to the extreme to win 22 Grand Slam titles and countless other accolades. In 2022 itself, Nadal re-wrote history. The 36-year-old won two Grand Slam titles in Melbourne and Paris, reached a semi-final in Wimbledon, rising to number two in the rankings and lost just one match at the majors throughout the year.
Nadal entered this year’s Australian Open as the top seed and defending champion, determined to recreate his heroics from 12 months ago.
However, the Spaniard’s body has started to wilt. The injuries have finally started to pile up, and the toll they have taken on his body is starting to shine through.
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After taking 2022 by storm, Nadal has not had the best last six months of his career. An injury in the Wimbledon quarter-finals forced him to withdraw from the semi-finals and give Nick Kyrgios a bye, and the 22-time Grand Slam champion visibly lost some steam by the time the US Open rolled around. Nadal lost in the fourth round to eventual finalist Francis Tiafoe, his earliest exit from a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2017.
Since then, Rafael Nadal has lost in the first round of the Paris Masters and was comprehensively beaten by Felix Auger-Aliassime and Taylor Fritz at the ATP World Tour Finals in Turin. In 2023, the Spaniard was outplayed by Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur at the United Cup in Sydney.
The 36-year-old didn’t come into the Australian Open with a world of form behind him, and after dropping a set to Jack Draper in the first round, Nadal bowed out of the competition with a straight sets defeat to American Mackenzie McDonald in the second round.
The top seed was battling injury throughout the second-round encounter on Rod Laver arena, struggling with a left-hip issue that hampered his backhand. Nadal showed tremendous courage and determination to push on despite his physical troubles against the Californian. But despite fighting hard till 5-5 in the third set, the Spaniard couldn’t hold on and eventually fell to a chastening defeat in the second round to bow out earlier than expected.
This was Rafael Nadal’s earliest exit at the majors since the Australian Open in 2016, and the worrying statistic for the Spaniard is that he has now lost seven of his last nine matches. Nadal has come back ferociously from setbacks before, but the living legend is going through the leanest periods of his storied career and has never been more vulnerable on the tennis court. Time takes no prisoners and slows down for no one, and even by El Matador’s standards, this may be a setback that is too hard for even him to overcome.
[Featured Image Credit: @a7md_bashir]