Ashraf Ali Siddiqui describes a decline
Nadal not clicking anymore organisers of the Australian Open 2023 had their work cut out as extreme heat forced a three-hour stoppage on the outside courts. As night fell, a storm brought heavy rain, leaving 11 matches unfinished, including nine which did not even start. It was however a pity to observe the decline of the most celebrated tennis star Rafael Nadal who lamented that he was destroyed mentally after slumping out of the Australian Open with a second-round defeat in which he struggled badly with a hip injury. The 36-old year professed his love for the game and expressed hope to keep going though his latest injury has caused widespread disappointment. The Spanish player hurt himself stretching for a shot in the second set against American Mackenzie McDonald and while he battled on, his movement was hampered and he lost 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. Crashing out in the second round was his earliest defeat at a Grand Slam since 2016 and he did not resemble in any way the 22-time Grand Slam winner.
Top seed Nadal said he was not sure if it was a muscle or joint problem with his hip but it had been with him for a couple of days. He added that sometimes it is frustrating, sometimes it is difficult to accept, sometimes one feels super-tired about all this stuff in terms of injuries. The Spaniard’s legendary career has frequently been haunted by physical frailties, with 2022 being another rollercoaster year. After winning the Australian Open, he suffered a stress fracture of the ribs in March before requiring daily pain-killing injections in his left foot to see him through to a 14th French Open title in June. Then his bid for a third Wimbledon crown was shattered by an abdominal injury. He also acknowledged that at his age it was getting harder to deal not only with injuries but the recovery process then regaining fitness to compete at the level he expects.
Earlier, at the first Grand Slam following Roger Federer’s retirement and Serena Williams’s evolving away from tennis, Spaniard Nadal carried the flame for the fading golden generation as he bids for a 23rd major title and third at Melbourne Park. The 36-year-old is third up at Rod Laver Arena, returning to the centre court where a year ago he conjured the miracle of Melbourne coming back from two sets down to topple Daniil Medvedev in a five-set classic. The top seed has had only one win since September’s US Open and admitted his title defence was vulnerable to an early shock after two straight defeats in the lead-up.
Australian Open is turning interesting as it has been described as one of the most open in years, with only two former champions in the draw. With local hero Ashleigh Barty having retired last March after ending Australia’s 44-year wait for a home winner, the women’s tournament will feature a new champion. Top seed Iga Swiatek is strong favourite to succeed Barty and win her first title at Melbourne Park, having won two of the four Grand Slams in 2022.
With American tennis looking for a new champion in the post-Serena era, big things have been expected of Gauff since her stunning run to the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2019 in her Grand Slam debut at the tender age of 15. Now 18 and with her first major final under her belt after last year’s French Open, Gauff may be among the strongest candidates to fill the vacuum left by Williams. It was far from routine earlier, however, as five-time runner-up Murray rolled back the years and saved a match point to beat Berrettini 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(10-6) in a near five-hour slog. Coming off a big pre-season, Murray channeled his halcyon days of 2016 as he raced to a two-set lead against the 13th-seeded Berrettini, who beat him at the US Open last year. Berrettini stormed back though and missed an easy backhand on a match point before Murray sealed victory in the deciding tiebreak with a cruel net cord. TW