Rafael Nadal’s hope of adding to his 22 Grand Slam titles suffered a blow when a hip injury made sure he would not make a more graceful exit. But while he played on in his second match of the tournament despite pain, the debate raged about what it took away from his American opponent’s success. But he was not the only controversial subject at hand as the Australian Open got underway.

Seven-time Grand Slam winner, John McEnroe, found himself in hot water, being labelled everything from being racist, ignorant and xenophobic after his comments on a young Chinese player did not go down well with Asian fans in particular.

John McEnroe did not have to take to court to create ripples. Commenting on the match that involved Shang Juncheng, also known as “Jerry”, becoming the first male Chinese player to win a match in the main draw of the Australian Open in the Open era, he said this on a sports network, “What is this Chinese guy’s name? Jerry? How did they come up with Jerry? Is he the only guy from China named Jerry? Did his parents watch Tom and Jerry?”

The rage and discussion about political correctness triggered the mind to the memory of another instance of a similar attempt at a crass joke, when an on air cricket commentator spoke to his fellow commentator, Sri Lanka’s Russell Arnold, saying he liked Russell because his was the only name that was easier to pronounce from Sri Lanka. He even went on to compliment his parents for deciding on the name.

Although at the time it did not quite create the stir it has now although equally cringeworthy, McEnroe is now at the receiving end of the ire of tennis fans who not only feel slighted by his crass humour comments but also, feel like he does not respect the Chinese player.

Juncheng is not only only 17 years of age but also, had climbed to a ranking of 192 from 666 at the start of 2022. Juncheng had to overcome Fernando Verdasco as part of his three match qualification to get to the main draw here. Although he won his first round match, defeating Germany’s Oscar Otto, he lost to France’s Tiafoe in the second round. Still it was more than the norm and instead his name has now been associated with this controversy.

Coming back to the draw, if Alexander Zverev’s thrilling five setter was the stuff of heartbreak and comebacks in the first round, there was more heartbreak floating around the Australian Open.

The German, coming back from multiple torn ligament injuries after he rolled over his ankle during an absorbing semi final against Nadal at the French Open last year, could not wait to get on court and compete in his first Grand Slam since the injury. However, he was tested to the limit, having to defend himself against a feisty Juan Pablo Varillas who did not seem to know fear or defeat.

It was not an easy match as the German might have hoped for as his opponent played brilliantly, trading applause with the German who blew similarly hot and cold. Eventually though, there was a sense that he had to keep his wits about him and hold himself back if he were to stage a comeback instead of a first round exit, a fear that loomed large and not only in his mind. Eventually he let out a guttural scream at the end of the match, depicting just how much tension and nerve racking it had been for him and the restraint and calm head it called for to get through.

In a four-hour-six-minute first round match, Zverev was tested to the limit by the 103rd ranked player in the world, stretching to a 4-6, 6-1, 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-4 victory in the end. He even joked that he had lost faith at one point in the match.

It was not the ideal start for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gold winner, even as fans tried to shake off the last image of him at a Grand Slam when he hobbled back on court on crutches to concede the match after a horrible injury that he thought ended his career at the French Open, at the height of his resurgence rising up to world no.3.

Zverev did also lend his opinion that he thought that Nadal would think of retiring his boots at the French Open, the Spaniard’s hallowed ground where he has won a record 14 of his 22 Grand Slam titles.

However, doubts were cast early when in the second round, midway through the match, Nadal appeared to have suffered a flare up of a hip injury and even received medical assistance even as his wife looked on ominously in tears.

Nadal did complete the match, limping at one point, as he was beaten in straight sets by USA’s Mackenzie McDonald. But there were questions that while it was noble for the Spaniard to continue playing despite injury in the course of the game, if it did take away from the American whose win will always be measured by the degree to which Nadal was suffering on court.

The mind harks back to Wimbledon when Nadal pushed on despite pain but chose not to risk it when the draw saw him face up to Nick Krygios, leaving the Australia with a rare bye in the semi final to set up an epic final with Serbia’s Novak Djokovic who eventually went onto to win to level his tally with the Spaniard at 22 Grand Slam titles.

Nadal survived a total of two hours and 32 minutes on court, not quite the four hour mark that Zverev had to sustain in order to get past the first round. But the determination was writ large as he played out for a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 defeat as the 36 year old is knocking on retirement’s door if one goes by injuries alone and the public conjecture at large. Nadal has been known to beat the odds and one would not go as far to say the writing is on the wall, not by the way he returned and kept playing.

“I didn’t want to retire as the defending champion here. I didn’t want to leave the court with a retirement,” the Spaniard said afterwards. “It’s better like this at the end. I lost, nothing to say, congratulations to my opponent. That’s the sport at the same time – just try your best until the end.”

While Nadal had a remarkable 2022 in that he won both the Australian Open and the French Open and seemed on course to add Wimbledon to that list before an abdominal injury put paid to it, it is the injuries that are headlining his recent adventures.

There were other insinuations that Djokovic might have it easier now that Nadal is out of the picture. With Roger Federer’s retirement, the big three had become the final two. With Nadal’s exit, Djokovic rode at the Australian Open to win a record 10th title might seem narrower in terms of known competition.

It will be a welcome break only in the sense that he had to miss last year’s tournament over the visa and vaccination fiasco and also, was set to be banned from Australia for three years which would have potentially dashed his dream of adding to his tally during his playing career.

It is still early days in the tournament and what might be standing in the Serbian’s way might not only be a fresh opponent but also, an injury which he reckons had created a similar situation in 2021. In 2021, Djokovic reportedly carried on despite suffering an abdominal tear during his third round match against Taylor Fritz and even went on to win the Australian Open.

A hamstring injury was of obvious concern in his first match even as he won over Roberto Carballes in the first round. Nadal’s not being able to carry on does open the door. With Nick Kyrgios also pulling out with injury and Zverev recovering from one, the Australian Open might appear to be limping in parts. At the time of writing this article, Norwegian Casper Ruud, seeded no.2 appeared to be in some trouble physically as well as on court, losing the first two sets to American J. Brooksby, even calling for a medical time out after the two sets.

But it is creating a buzz about fresh talents around some of the relative unknowns and it will be interesting if the Australian Open can produce a new winner or let the Serbian Czar hold on for another year as kings and pins fall by the wayside.