Australian Open: Jack Draper loses to Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park

Rafael Nadal and Jack Draper
Draper (right) made his Australian Open debut against defending champion Nadal (left)
Dates: January 16-29 place: Melbourne Park
Coverage: Commentary every day from 07:00 GMT on Radio 5 Sports Extra ‘Tennis Breakfast’ live from Melbourne, with selected live text commentary and match reports on the BBC Sport website and app.

British rising star Jack Draper tested Spain’s Rafael Nadal before physical problems cost him a four-set defeat in the first round of the Australian Open.

Draper, 21, leveled each at one set apiece, leading to 22-time major champion Nadal, 36, having a frank discussion with his team before the third set.

Top seed Nadal led 4-1 but was still unconvinced as Draper fought back before the Briton lost serve at 5-4.

Draper struggled to get going in the fourth as Nadal secured a 7-5 2-6 6-4 6-1 win.

Britain’s Kyle Edmund was also knocked out on day one at Melbourne Park with a 6-4 6-0 6-2 loss to Italian 15th seed Jannik Sinner.

Edmund, 28, reached the semi-finals in 2018 but is trying to rebuild his career after a knee injury that required three operations before he returned to the tour last year.

Playing using a protected ranking, it was another tough Grand Slam draw for Edmund after facing eventual runner-up Casper Ruud at last year’s US Open.

Cameron Norrie, seeded 11th, aims to avoid a clean sweep of the Brits in the men’s singles on Monday when he takes on French wildcard Luca van Assche.

In the women’s singles, Emma Raducanu made a positive return to the court after an injury scare in preparation for the Grand Slam.

The British number one has moved on to the second round by winning in two sets over the German Tamara Korpatsch and she could be joined there by Harriet Dart, who plays Swiss 32nd seed Jil Teichmann.

Encouraging for Draper, but work still needs to be done

For a long time at Rod Laver Arena, it looked like Draper might pull off an incredible upset against a player he described as one of his “heroes.”

His ball-striking caused Nadal problems throughout, but the physical problems that have dogged the left-hander’s rising career have returned.

Draper collapsed at the 2021 Miami Open due to heat-related illness and was also forced to withdraw from a third-round match at the US Open last year when he was in a decent position against Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov.

This time he struggled with what appeared to be a cramp and needed treatment from a physical therapist in the third set.

In the latter stages of the fourth, Draper – who rose to world No. 38 after falling outside the top 250 last year – couldn’t push away on serve.

Developing his body for the demands of the ATP Tour was a priority in the grueling pre-season regime, enlisting former Olympic sprinter and bobsledder Dejan Vojnović as a fitness coach.

This was another reminder that the team still needs to work on improving the youngster’s physical ability.

But performances like this reiterate that he appears to have an exciting future ahead of him as he embarks on what is still his first full season on the ATP Tour.

I played with one of the toughest possible opponents in the first round, said Nadal.

“He’s young, he’s got power and he’s got a big future ahead of him. We’ll see him play for many years to come.”

Nadal proved vulnerable

Rafael Nadal celebrates his victory over Jack Draper
Nadal avoided becoming the first defending men’s champion to lose in the first round of Melbourne to Boris Becker in 1997.

Defending champion Nadal is the top seed in the absence of injured world number one Carlos Alcaraz, but after six defeats in his previous seven matches he admitted he is vulnerable to defeat by Draper.

That’s how it turned out. Nadal was far from his best, seemed to lack speed and made a catalog of uncharacteristic errors.

Backed by vocal support for the Spaniard, Draper started confidently and matched his illustrious opponent for much of the opening set.

Shot selection between the two pairs proved crucial at key stages. An audibly annoyed Draper complained about hitting a poor forehand into the net at 5-5 deuce on Nadal’s serve and was penalized for two poor drop shots in the 12th game.

But Draper maintained his level in the second set and threatened to overcome the tough Spaniard, who committed 24 unforced errors.

Nadal’s frustrations showed when he was engaged in a lively conversation with coach Carlos Moya and everything that was said seemed to encourage the former world number one to play more aggressively.

However, what helped him the most in the 4-1 lead was Draper throwing a pair of double faults in the fifth game and the British weakening.

In the end, Nadal cruised to the fourth set and secured a meeting with world number 65 American Mackenzie McDonald in the second round.

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