The first collective gasp of this year’s Australian Open came Thursday afternoon, four days before the tournament officially begins.
The hubbub came at the start of the men’s singles draw when Jack Draper’s name appeared in the second slot in the 128-man field. That meant Draper’s first-round opponent was guaranteed to be Rafael Nadal, the reigning Australian Open champion and the No. 1 seed in the absence of the injured Carlos Alcaraz.
The buzz in the room was a sign of the left-handed Draper’s gathering strength — a 21-year-old Briton, he is in form and up to No. 40 in the world — but also a reflection of Nadal’s disarray.
One of the greatest sports champions, Nadal has lost six of his last seven tour singles matches, losing to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, Tommy Paul in the first round of the Paris Masters, Taylor Fritz and Felix Auger-Aliassime in round-robin matches at the ATP Finals, and Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur in the recently completed United Cup team event.
None of those six men has reached a Grand Slam singles final and neither has Hubert Hurkacz, who dealt Nadal his latest defeat — even if it was only in a practice match — in Rod Laver Arena on Thursday evening in front of a few thousand spectators (and a chair umpire).
Hurkacz, a flashy shotmaker with an unflashy personality, is no pushover. He is seeded No. 10 in Melbourne and will forever be the last man to face — and defeat — Nadal’s friendly rival Roger Federer in singles.
Hurkacz defeated Federer in straight sets in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2021, and he looked considerably looser and more relaxed on Thursday evening than Nadal, who kept casting concerned glances at his main coach, Carlos Moyá, after missing groundstrokes and first serves.
Nadal’s experience, grit and ability to problem solve in best-of-five-set matches should not be dismissed, and he has been focused on shortening points and coming to the net in his pretournament sessions this week. He pushed forward often against Hurkacz on Thursday.