Alex de Minaur has delivered a stunning upset over Rafael Nadal to get his preparation for the upcoming Australian Open off to a flying start. However, the Aussie star's effort has also sparked fears about Nadal's return from the abdominal injury which derailed his season at Wimbledon last year.
De Minaur produced some his his best tennis to down the Spaniard at the United Cup, claiming a hard-fought 3-6 6-1 7-5 victory. The 23-year-old secured a service break at 5-5 in the third set, enough to propel him to a memorable victory.
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Uncharacteristic errors from the 22-time grand slam champion gave De Minaur plenty of opportunity to impose his will on the match though. A clearly limited Nadal, playing in just his 10th match since withdrawing prior to his Wimbledon semi-final against Nick Kyrgios last year, served from a lower ball toss throughout the evening and clearly lost power as the match wore on.
Nadal's previous victory came against Casper Ruud in a dead rubber at the ATP finals, with the Spanish superstar having lost six of his last seven matches. Commentator Jim Courier said Nadal 'hasn't played close' to the level he was at last year, which saw him win both the French and Australian Open finals.
“I was (at the ATP Finals) working calling all of his matches. It was uncomfortable watching the misses that he was hitting because we’ve never seen him miss rally shots like that,” Courier said. Fellow commentator Tim Henman noted it looked like Nadal was 'looking for shortcuts' and taking unnecessary risks that weren't paying off.
However there was little cause for alarm to tennis writer Ben Rothenberg. Though admitting it was undoubtedly the 'worst' stretch of Nadal's career, he felt there were positive signs from the 36-year-old.
“Rafael Nadal is going through the worst run, results-wise, of his career. He’s only 1-6 in his last seven matches, with the lone win coming in a dead rubber in round-robin play in Turin against Ruud,” Rothenberg wrote on Twitter.
“But by eye-test, things don’t look nearly that desperate for Nadal right now. He lost in tight third sets to Norrie and De Minaur, and he was cracking some pretty thunderous forehands against AdM, especially. He’s not the favourite in Melbourne, but he’s hardly out of the mix.”
Alex de Minaur rides Aussie energy to memorable win over Rafael Nadal
After enduring a difficult season in 2022, which saw him tumble out of the top 100 in the world rankings, De Minaur was pumped up after the hard-fought victory. He said the team atmosphere at the United Cup had been a crucial factor in keeping him going after a tough first set in Sydney.
“I couldn’t be happier that I managed to get my first win over Rafa on this court in front of your guys,” De Minaur said after the match. “It’s no secret this is my favourite court in the entire world, so thank you very much.
“I knew it was going to be a battle, Rafa is a hell of a competitor. What he’s been able to do for this sport has been truly astounding. I’m just honoured and it’s a dream come true to be able to beat on court.”
"Whenever I get a chance to play for Australia, and I’m a true believer in there being no greater honour than playing for your country. Every time there’s an opportunity I’ll put my hand up. I love doing it, I love playing for Australia and I’ll keep doing it with a smile on my face.”
It comes as fellow Australian youngster Alexei Popyrin caused an Adelaide International boilover, shocking Canadian world No.6 Felix Auger-Aliassime in their first-round battle. The 23-year-old has two wins against top 10 players to his name but both were mid-match retirements.
This time the world No.120, who came through qualifying, proved he was the real deal with a 6-4 7-6 (7-5) victory to send the second seed packing. Danish world No.11 Holger Rune was also a surprise first-round casualty, falling to Japan's Yoshihito Nishioka.
Sydneysider Popyrin trailed in the 0-3 in the second set and was also down a mini-break in the tiebreak but both times clawed his way back. He only needed one match point to wrap up the biggest win of his career.
After a rough 2022, Popyrin said it was good to see his hard work paying off under new coach, former Belgian star Xavier Malisse, who is a former world top-20 player. "I'm pretty happy, it's obviously an unbelievable feeling," Popyrin said on court after the match.
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