Jack Draper’s hopes of causing an early shock at the Australian Open faded after the young Briton hobbled with cramp during a 7-5 2-6 6-4 6-1 defeat to defending champion Rafael Nadal.
A run of six defeats from seven matches heading into the year’s first Grand Slam was the worst of his career and a tally of 45 unforced errors showed that this was far from vintage Nadal.
Fellow left-hander Draper played superb tennis to level the match at a set all but the 21-year-old soon developed leg troubles and was left groaning in pain as Nadal closed out the match on Rod Laver Arena.
“Going to this trip in Australia, I was very undercooked, to be honest,” said Draper.
“After last year, I was really excited about doing a good pre-season. I had two viral infections so had to be on antibiotics on two occasions. I lost five of those seven weeks.
“I’ve got to be proud of the way I competed in Adelaide (he reached the semi-finals of the ATP event there last week) and the effort I put in there. I think I surprised myself with where I’ve been at.
“Obviously this physical thing is going to take time. It’s going to take patience. But I’m fully aware of that and I’m willing to do everything I can to put myself in a great place moving forward.”
Nadal vs Draper: Match Stats
|73%||1st serve win percentage||63%|
|51%||2nd serve win percentage||56%|
|6/12||Break points won||4/11|
|124||Total points won||110|
Speaking on court afterwards, Nadal said: “If we put in perspective all the situations I went through the last six months, it has been a very positive start. I played against one of the toughest opponents possible in the first round. He’s young, he has the power and I think he has a great future in front (of him).”
Nadal was broken first game of the final set when Draper punished a dubious attempted drop-shot with a winner but the Spaniard won the next six games in succession to claim the match as the ailing Briton bowed out swinging.
Draper, who modelled his game around his hero Nadal, settled well into the contest, facing only one break point before a poorly executed drop shot enabled Nadal to claim the opening set.
The top seed pumped his fists in celebration, an indication that it was a big moment for him as he tries to play himself back into form, but he went completely off the boil at the start of the second set.
Mistakes flowed from the Nadal racket and Draper, who might even have taken the set 6-0, did not need to do anything spectacular to level the contest amid a couple of very brief rain delays.
Nadal admitted ahead of the tournament that a lack of wins had left him feeling more vulnerable than usual but he spoke confidently about his form in practice and belief that it would translate to the match court.
The defending champion had an animated exchange with his team sat courtside ahead of the third set and there was greater assertiveness about his game thereafter.
He was helped by Draper beginning to flag physically, his serve and shots noticeably lacking the same pop.
A wayward double fault from the British player handed Nadal a break for 3-1 but the defending champion was still producing plenty of uncharacteristic errors and he gave the advantage back with a terrible game at 4-2.
Draper was unable to keep the pressure on, though, saving one set point with an ace in the 10th game but pushing a backhand just wide on the second.
He took a long break to change his outfit and offered hope of a comeback with a break of the Nadal serve in the opening game of the fourth set but the Spaniard was at last playing a little better and he hit straight back.
During a long point in the fourth game, Draper began to cramp again, and he was completely hamstrung during the formalities of the final few games.
Draper, who recently hired a fitness coach in Croatian Dejan Vojnovic, said: “I felt at the beginning of the third that my tennis was right there. I almost felt like I was in control of the match at that point.
“The first set’s always tough. I’ve never been on court with Rafa before. The second set, I sort of calmed down and started playing really well. If I would have carried on that way, who knows?
“I just need to investigate why I’m getting (cramp), but also know that I’ve only just started really with my fitness trainer that I’ve invested in.
“Obviously playing a player like Rafa on Rod Laver, something that I’ll remember for a very long time. A real honour to play against him, someone I’ve idolised growing up.
“To go toe-to-toe with him on a big court like that is special. I think I can take away the fact that my tennis is getting closer and closer.”
Nadal, bidding for a record-extending 23rd Grand Slam title, will next face Mackenzie McDonald for a place in the third round after the American overcame his compatriot Brandon Nakashima in five sets.
Cameron Norrie survived a close first-set battle against teenager Luca Van Assche before pulling away to ease into the second round of the Australian Open.
The British No 1, seeded 11, has become a master of winning these early Grand-Slam matches and so it proved once again, a run of 10 straight games helping him to a 7-6 (7-3) 6-0 6-3 victory over a player ranked 143.
Norrie only arrived in Melbourne late on Saturday night after a loss to Richard Gasquet in the final of the ASB Classic in his home city of Auckland.
That gave him only one day to prepare for this match but he carried a lot of confidence from a run of six victories to start the season, including over Rafael Nadal, as well as his exploits of the last two campaigns.
A good run here could see Norrie return to the top 10 and he was his customary relentless self as he wore down 18-year-old Van Assche.
The Frenchman, who won the junior title at Roland Garros in 2021, is considered a big talent for the future and twice recovered from a break down in the opening set.
Norrie became a little wayward off his forehand but tightened things up in the tie-break and from there kept constant pressure on Van Assche, who will have learned a lot from the encounter but was not quite up to the task here.
American Frances Tiafoe was tested in his first-round encounter with Daniel Altmaier but eventually prevailed 6-3 6-3 6-7 (7-5) 7-6 (7-6) in a gruelling match.
Shang Juncheng, 17, became the first male player from China to win a main-draw singles match at the tournament in the Open Era when he stunned German Otte 6-2 6-4 6-7 (2-7) 7-5 on his Grand Slam debut.
This post is originally appeared on Sky News