Mackenzie McDonald stood in front of the microphone and told the 15,000 spectators in the Rod Laver Arena how he judged his performance. “I think I played really well,” he began, “I served well, returned well, I really hit him.” It was otherwise quiet in the main stadium of the Australian Open, but a scene that took place at the same time appeared on the video screen at that very second. There was a man, a gambler, carrying a bag, limping down a narrow, long hallway. It probably seemed endless to the man.

It was Rafael Nadal, who had left the square only a few seconds earlier to trembling applause, he had raised his right arm and thanked for the sympathy in his typical polite way. His departure on stage looked so unspectacular this time. “He’s an incredible champion, he never gives up no matter the situation,” McDonald continued. “It’s always difficult to pull off a match like that. I tried to focus on what I was doing.” Nadal was no longer displayed at the top of the screen, instead a blue area appeared on the video wall with the line in the middle: “The story starts here.” There could hardly have been a worse time for this saying.

This tournament had just ended for Nadal, which he had won twelve months ago – to the amazement of everyone. He had previously been out injured for months. It was his 21st Grand Slam triumph, after which he added his 22nd at the French Open in Paris. When professionals in this category retire, of which there are not a handful in men’s tennis, there is always a great deal of excitement.

And that’s why every word that Nadal would say when he appeared at the press conference after the 4: 6, 4: 6, 5: 7 second round defeat against the Californian McDonald carried weight here and now. Andy Murray, 35, the world’s most successful tennis pro with an artificial hip, recently said he was basically just one serious injury away from retiring. Possibly – or certainly – Nadal, a year older than the Scot, is also at this stage.

Nadal’s terrible injury series at the Australian Open started in 2010

“I’m ready to continue,” Nadal said at one point, but whether it will happen that way can be considered open. So does he. Around this statement, he had made it clear that he now somehow dreads the near future, which once again reminds of many unpleasant pasts. Back to the doctors again. Possibly another long rehab. Catching up all the training backlog again to get to his best level. “I’ve done this process too many times in my career,” said Nadal. He wants to face this again – “but it is not easy, without a doubt”.

Of course, the world of tennis and sports will forever associate this Mallorcan, obsessed with work and fighting spirit, with his victories and battles. But also with his physical problems and complaints, which accompany his career at least as numerously. In that regard, Melbourne has cemented its reputation as the place where Nadal is particularly injured, for whatever reason. Nadal’s streak of terror started in the 2010 quarterfinals: submission to Murray, the knee. 2011: Three-set loss to David Ferrer, the thigh. 2013: Withdrawal two weeks before the start of the tournament, the abs. 2014: Final loss to Stan Wawrinka, the back. 2018, submission against Marin Cilic, hip. 2019: final defeat against Novak Djokovic, muscular problems. It hurts to read all of this.

That Nadal once said he was “tired of talking about it” is all too understandable. Although he could “not complain about my life,” he said. He is rich, has a large family, friends around him, with his wife Xisca Perelló he was able to look forward to the birth of their first child, a son. But when it comes to his job, it would be a lie to say everything is fantastic, he admitted.

Nadal has to go through various parts of the body again to determine the damage

2022 alone was another year in which it helped sports reporters to have previous medical knowledge. Müller-Weiss syndrome was the big topic at the French Open, Nadal has been suffering from this cartilage in his left foot for 15 years. At Wimbledon he did not appear in the semi-finals because he suffered a torn abdominal muscle. So now the hip stopped him. He would have felt something in the past few days, but “I would never have expected this scenario,” he assured.

At the score of 4: 6, 3: 4, 15:15, Nadal had run along the baseline to the ball when something shot through him like a stab. He made a face. He took a break from treatment and left the field with a physio. His team was shocked in the box. As the TV pictures caught, his wife shed tears, coach Carlos Moya looked gloomy, manager Carlos Costa and Nadal’s father too. After continuing to play, he thought about quitting the whole time, said Nadal, but he was also the defending champion – “I didn’t want to give up”.

Now Nadal has to go through various parts of the body again to determine the damage. Muscle, joint, cartilage, like a doctor who first considers all options, he named the possible weak points this time. He was asked what else motivates him to keep coming back. “It’s really simple: I like what I do,” said Nadal, only to fall back into the blues shortly afterwards. “It’s tiring and frustrating,” he admitted, “to spend a large part of my tennis career in recovery processes and trying to fight all of those things.” In any case, he doesn’t know “what can happen in the future”. He rarely sounded so sad.

When the Spanish part of the press conference was over, Nadal said goodbye to the two shorthand typists in the corner, who always record the interviews. “Gracias, thank you,” he said, smiling. And then a little comment slipped out of habit, which is still unclear whether it will happen like this: “See you,” said Nadal – and hobbled away.

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