Rafael Nadal 'destroyed mentally' after Australian Open exit but vows to 'keep fighting'

Top seed and defending champion eliminated in second round after hip injury in second set limits his ability to mount a comeback against world No 65 Mackenzie McDonald

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It was a sight that, sadly, has been far too frequent throughout Rafael Nadal's incomparable career.

Granted, the Spaniard had started slowly in the second round of his Australian Open title defence against American Mackenzie McDonald, where he found himself a set and a break down in the second.

But any chance of a Nadal fightback were extinguished by one sudden movement: while running for a backhand, the top seed tweaked his left hip, and after inspection from a trainer when trailing 6-4, 5-3, Nadal went off court for a medical time-out.

From there, Nadal was practically immobile and barely able to hit his backhand, but he continued to battle on in trademark fashion before succumbing to a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 defeat to world No 65 McDonald.

It was the Spaniard's earliest exit from a major in seven years and will lead to more questions about whether his long list of injury problems are catching up with him. His 2021 and 2022 seasons were severely affected by a long-term foot injury, before an abdominal tear at Wimbledon last year led to another six-week layoff. In all, Nadal has missed 11 Grand Slams throughout his career because of injury.

Yet, while the chatter about Nadal's future is sure to resurface, the record 22-time Grand Slam champion insisted he will fight on, despite admitting the setback has left him "destroyed mentally".

"Now is not the right moment to have something like this [injury], but in the end you have to keep going," Nadal, 36, said. "It's sometimes frustrating and difficult to accept. Sometimes you feel super tired about all this stuff in terms of injuries.

"I can't come here and lie and say life is fantastic and that I'm staying positive. Not now, but tomorrow starts another day, now it's a tough moment, a tough day. You need to accept that, and keep going.

"In the end, I can't complain about my life at all. In terms of sport and injuries and tough moments, that's another one. I can't say that I'm not destroyed mentally at this time because I would be lying.

"Let's see, hopefully it's not too bad. I had three positive weeks in terms of practice, so I really hope it doesn't put me out of the court for a long time because then its tough to make the recovery again and the amount of work to come back at a decent level. I went through this process too many times in my career. I'm ready to keep doing this, I think, but it's not easy without a doubt."

Upon arriving in Australia, Nadal almost immediately fielded questions about his possible retirement, to which he curtly responded that he would make the announcement himself when the time comes.

Inevitably, the Spaniard was asked why he continues to put himself through the disappointment of injury and the subsequent grind of recovery, when he has achieved so much in his career, and his answer was decidedly simple.

"I like what I do. I like playing tennis, I know it's not forever," he said. "I like to be competitive. And that's it. It's not too complicated to understand. When you like to do one thing, in the end sacrifice always makes sense. When you do things you like to do, it's not sacrifice; sacrifice is doing thing you don't want to do – that is not my case."

Nadal did admit, though, that if the hip injury proved to be another long-term problem, it would become increasingly difficult to return to the top level.

"It is tiring, I'm frustrated to spend a lot of my tennis career in the recovery process but I've accepted it and I've been able to manage it well," he said. "But the last seven months have been a tough period. I don't know what happens in the future but I need to avoid another long period of time [away] because then it's tough.

"To be away for seven months playing almost nothing and then if I have to spend a long time again [not playing] its super difficult to find a rhythm, be competitive and be ready to fight for the things I want to fight for. Let's see how the injury is and then let's see how I can follow the calendar."

Updated: January 18, 2023, 10:53 AM