American Mackenzie McDonald won the biggest match of his career at the 2023 Australian Open, stunning defending champion and current world #2 Rafael Nadal in three sets on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. The 22-time Grand Slam champion Nadal lost in the second round of his title defense of his second career Australian Open title, after surviving Jack Draper in the opening round, Nadal struggled against McDonald, who has never previously advanced beyond the 4th round of a Grand Slam, or been ranked in the ATP Top 40.
Mackenzie McDonald def. Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-4 7-5
The 27-year-old California native and UCLA alumnus, who reached a career high ranking of #48 last season and reached his first career ATP final in Washington, had survived a five-set tilt with countryman Brandon Nakashima in the opening round that featured four tiebreaks. McDonald begin the match against Nadal in spirited form, taking the first set 6-4 in less than an hour, Nadal quickly fell behind a double break 4-1, as McDonald broke him in two of his first three service games while facing no break points on his own serve. Nadal would regain one of those breaks, but McDonald’s powerful game helped him secure the first set, saving a break point on his own serve before taking the first set 6-4 on a final game of the set that went to deuce.
In the second set, McDonald jumped out to an early lead, breaking the Spaniard in his first service game. He also had break points to go up 3-0, but Nadal saved them, which seemed to flip a switch for the Spaniard. His level rose noticeably, and for a few games it seemed like he would take control. Nadal broke back and nosed ahead in the set. However, McDonald was able to hold his serve and wait for an opportunity. He earned another break, and Nadal appeared to struggle with a hip/back issue, for which he received treatment. This hip injury caused him significant pain during the match, and according to Nadal, was not an injury he came into the match with, but rather one that developed during the course of play.
Not one to give up, Nadal fought through the pain and made McDonald work to take the set. Early in the third set, though, it became clear that Nadal’s injury was seriously hampering his movement. The Spaniard went into full ball-bashing mode, hoping to survive short points and that whatever was bothering him would loosen up again. It worked, at least somewhat. Nadal kept holding serve, and as we got to the end of the set his movement did seem to improve somewhat. Of course, he still wasn’t at 100%, and McDonald took full advantage in the 5-5 game. He made a few impressive returns and backed them up with smart baseline play, breaking Nadal to go up 6-5 and serve for the match.
McDonald had no problems there. Nadal went big on return, but smart and strong serving made it never a doubt. The American held serve for the biggest win of his career.
McDonald advances to the third round and will continue his quest to advance beyond the 4th round of a Grand Slam. He will face #31 seed Yoshihito Nishioka in the third round. It’s McDonald’s second career Top 10 win, he defeated then-World #4 Juan Martin del Potro in 2019 in Delray Beach.
Nadal will suffer a significant loss of ranking points from his early exit. He will fall to World #6 at absolute best at the conclusion of this event, and likely a few spots further. His poor form to start the season, and now a hip injury, will certainly strengthen the rumors of an impending retirement for the 36 year-old Spaniard, especially after his longtime rival for the title of Greatest of All Time, Roger Federer, retired last year. The loss is Nadal’s earliest exit from a Grand Slam that he participated in since 2016, when countryman Fernando Verdasco ousted him in the opening round of the Australian Open. It’s only the fourth loss in the first or second round for Nadal in a hard court Grand Slam (Australian Open or US Open).