Tennis great's fear for Rafa Nadal after ugly career-first in Australia

Tennis great Paul McNamee is concerned Father Time might finally be catching 22-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal ahead of the Australian Open.

Rafael Nadal throws the ball up to serve during a practice session before the Australian Open.
Rafa Nadal's slow start to the 2023 season has lead to some fears age might finally be catching the 22-time grand slam champion. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal's uncharacteristically underwhelming performances leading into the upcoming Australian Open has sparked fears the defending champion's injuries have finally taken a toll. Nadal won the Australian Open in 2022, stunning many in his return from injury to win his 21st grand slam.

Turning back the clock at Melbourne Park for a thumping victory over Daniil Medvedev in the final, Nadal went on to add another French Open victory to his impressive career tally. Unfortunately, injuries again reared their head later in the year, forcing him to withdraw from his Wimbledon semi-final against Nick Kyrgios.

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After a shaky start to 2023 after touching down in Australia, including a loss to Alex de Minaur at the United Cup, Nadal has admitted he needs to 'get a little faster'. But the explanations have been unconvincing so far, leading four-time doubles grand slam champion Paul McNamee to ponder whether or not Father Time may finally have begun to catch the Spanish star.

Fearing Nadal may have 'lost a yard' in a column penned for the Sydney Morning Heard, McNamee said the 'X-Factor' would be Nadal's fitness. The 36-year-old will enter the Australian Open listed as the fourth favourite, behind the likes of Novak Djokovic and world No.1 Carlos Alcaraz.

"There is speculation his abdominal injury is affecting his ball toss but, for me, more concerning is his own recent admission: 'I need to get a little faster physically.'," McNamee wrote. "Court coverage has always been a major asset of Nadal's but, and this is a cruel thing to say, I fear he's lost a yard.

"So, as Father Time advances, and to be fair at 36 he is only one year older than Djokovic, winning the Australian Open will be a lot more difficult for Nadal. As defending champion and world No.2, he is certainly in the conversation. However, for Aussies wishing to see the great Spaniard, I'd suggest enjoy him while you can."

Rafa Nadal falls to Alex de Minaur in difficult United Cup clash

The Australian registered his first-ever win over 22-time grand slam champion Nadal at the United Cup, downing the Spaniard 3-6 6-1 7-5. While not on the biggest stage - the clash was part of a dead tie with Great Britain already progressing to the next round of the competition - it's still one of the best of the 23-year-old's career.

Until Monday night in Sydney, de Minaur had never beaten a player ranked No.1 or No.2 in the world - now he has beaten arguably the best of all-time. "It's a big win for myself, one that I really needed. I'm gonna cherish and use, take all the confidence from this and be able to hopefully take it to have a good Aussie summer," de Minaur said.

Alex de Minaur got his 2022 season off to a triumphant start thanks to a thrilling victory over Rafael Nadal. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Alex de Minaur got his 2022 season off to a triumphant start thanks to a thrilling victory over Rafael Nadal. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

World No.2 Nadal started inauspiciously, going down an early break, only to reel off four straight games to snatch the first set. That momentum continued with another break to start the second set, only for the Sydney local to produce some of his own trademark grit and storm through the next six games.

The decider was a mixed bag - de Minaur's foot speed and ability to rip out winners from defensive positions against the brute force and experience of Nadal. The pair traded breaks midway through the set before an error-strewn 11th game from Nadal saw de Minaur serve for the match. There'd be no more drama as the Australian served it out to love to claim the win.

With AAP

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