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 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 champions in any sport, Nadal has lost six of his last seven tour singles matches, struggling with his timing, confidence and even his composure as he has been defeated by, in order, 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, Australia, and will forever be the last man to face — and defeat — Nadal’s friendly rival Roger Federer in singles.
“Rafa is certainly vulnerable,” said Todd Woodbridge, the Australian former star who is now an analyst for Australian television. “He had that faraway look on a changeover against Tiafoe at the U.S. Open, and it looked like he had it again in the match against de Minaur last week.”
But as Woodbridge and everyone else in tennis have learned repeatedly over the past 19 years, you cannot count out a player of Nadal’s talent and inner drive. He has repeatedly risen from the depths, most recently at the 2022 French Open, which he entered injured and slumping but then managed to win his 14th men’s singles title at Roland Garros.
Another title run here in Melbourne looks far less likely, however. The opening hurdle is high with the 6-foot-4 Draper, who advanced to a semifinals match Friday in the lead-in event in Adelaide, Australia.
Get past Draper, and Nadal could face rising American Brandon Nakashima in the second round, Tiafoe in the fourth round and former No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the quarterfinals in what would be a rematch of their topsy-turvy, five-set Australian Open final last year.
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.
“I need to win matches, for sure, but the preparation is going quite well, practicing a lot, and I’m in good shape,” Nadal said. “Then you need to demonstrate that in the matches in the official tournaments, but I am confident that if I’m able to have the last week of positive practices, why not?”
Draper is not the only British player with a high-profile match in Melbourne. Andy Murray, Nadal’s contemporary and a former No. 1, will face former Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini in the opening round. Emma Raducanu, the big-surprise U.S. Open women’s champion in 2021, could face seventh-seeded Coco Gauff in the second round if both win their openers (and if Raducanu’s injured ankle continues to improve and allows her to take part in the tournament).
Gauff, 18, struggled with her forehand and confidence at the end of the 2022 season but had a productive offseason and on Sunday won the singles title in Auckland, New Zealand. The event was played indoors and outdoors because of frequent rain and lacked many of the other leading Australian Open contenders.
The favorite in the women’s draw remains No. 1 Iga Swiatek despite her lopsided and emotional defeat to Jessica Pegula of the United States in the United Cup. But Swiatek, who faces German all-court player Jule Niemeier in the opening round, is in a thorny section of the draw. Her eighth includes Grand Slam singles champions Bianca Andreescu and Elena Rybakina as well as Danielle Collins, who lost in the final last year in Melbourne to Ashleigh Barty, who retired in March.
There will be newcomers as well, including 15-year-old qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova, the youngest woman in the tournament and part of the Czech Republic’s big wave of young talent that includes her sister Linda Fruhvirtova, 17, who is also making her Australian Open singles debut.
Thursday’s draw delivered another rarity: a first-round match between two former Australian Open singles champions: Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian veteran who won in 2012 and 2013, and Sofia Kenin, the American who won in 2020 but has since dropped outside the top 100. That matchup was all the more extraordinary considering that Azarenka and Kenin are the only Australian Open women’s singles champions in the draw. Seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams is now retired (or at least evolved). Two-time champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber are pregnant, and so is Barty, although that happened after her surprise retirement at age 25.
Much can change in a hurry in tennis, as Nadal knows well, and this year’s tournament is already a sea change from last year’s because Novak Djokovic is in the draw after being deported by the Australian government on the eve of the 2022 event because he was unvaccinated for the coronavirus.
Now, after a change in government policy and after winning the warm-up event in Adelaide, Djokovic, still unvaccinated, can chase his 10th Australian Open singles title. He will face the unseeded Spaniard Roberto Carballés Baena in the opening round on the opposite side of the draw from his longtime rival Nadal.
Based on current form, Djokovic winning his 22nd major singles title sounds a lot more plausible than Nadal winning his 23rd.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.