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

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

British rising star Jack Draper tested Spain’s Rafael Nadal before cramping issues cost him in a four-set loss in the Australian Open first round.

Draper, 21, leveled at one-set each before 22-time major champion Nadal, 36, secured a 7-5 2-6 6-4 6-1 win.

The world number 38, who often struggled with physical issues in his burgeoning career, could barely move during the fourth set.

“Physically, I’ll be first to say I’m still a work in progress,” Draper said.

The British number three said he was troubled by cramping all over his body and put that down to being “undercooked” after a disrupted pre-season.

“First it was the legs and then towards the end I started feeling it my ab/rib. When that happens it is almost game over because it completely locks you up,” he said.

“Playing professional tennis at this level is very gruelling so for a young player like myself it will take a lot of time to get it right.

“These are all valuable learning experiences for me and especially playing against someone like Rafa.

“I left it all out there. I tried my best, competed my hardest and proud of how I played. At times I felt I was in a good place to win the match.”

Encouraging for Draper but work still to do

For a good while on Rod Laver Arena it looked as though Draper could cause a stunning upset against a player he described as one of his “heroes”.

His ball-striking caused problems for Nadal throughout, but the physical issues which have dogged the left-hander’s burgeoning career returned.

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

This time, he struggled with cramp and needed treatment from the physio in the third set.

By the latter stages of the fourth, Draper – who has risen to 38th in the world after being outside the top 250 last year – was unable to push off on serve.

Developing his body for the rigors of the ATP Tour was the priority for pre-season after hiring former Olympic sprinter and bobsleigher Dejan Vojnovic as a fitness coach.

But two viral infections cost him five weeks of a planned seven-week training block and this was another reminder the team have more work to do on improving the youngster’s physicality.

“I was pumped to have an amazing pre-season and it’s where most of the players get the opportunity to progress their physicality,” said Draper, who reached the semi-finals of a warm-up tournament in Adelaide last week.

“I was pretty wiped out before the tournaments in Australia and part of me feels I’ve got to be proud of my efforts.”

Performances like this against Nadal reiterate he appears to have an exciting future ahead as he embarks on what is still only his first full season on the ATP Tour.

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

“He is young, he has power and has a great future ahead. We will see him play for many years ahead.”

Nadal proves to be vulnerable

Rafael Nadal celebrates beating Jack Draper
Nadal avoided becoming the first men’s defending champion to lose in the Melbourne first round since 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, admitted he was vulnerable to losing against Draper.

So it proved. Nadal was far from his best, seeming to lack speed and making a catalog of uncharacteristic errors.

Amid a backdrop of vocal support for the Spaniard, Draper started confidently and matched his illustrious opponent for the bulk of the opening set.

Shot selection between the pair proved key in the pivotal stages. An audibly annoyed Draper rued hitting a poor forehand into the net at 5-5 deuce on Nadal’s serve and was punished for two weak drop shots in the 12th game.

But Draper retained his level in the second set and threatened to bagel the struggling Spaniard, who produced 24 unforced errors.

Nadal’s frustrations showed when he was involved in an animated conversation with coach Carlos Moya and whatever was said seemed to encourage the former world number one to play more aggressively.

However, he was chiefly helped into a 4-1 lead by Draper throwing in a pair of double faults in the fifth game and the Briton’s weakening condition.

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

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