Jack Draper struggles with cramp in battling four-set defeat to Rafael Nadal

Jack Draper was beaten by Rafael Nadal (Aaron Favila/AP) (AP)
Jack Draper was beaten by Rafael Nadal (Aaron Favila/AP) (AP)

Jack Draper was hobbled by cramp as he fell to a four-set loss against defending champion Rafael Nadal in the first round of the Australian Open.

The draw had handed the 21-year-old rising British star a blockbuster clash with his childhood idol on his debut at Melbourne Park, and an opportunity to really break through onto the world stage given Nadal’s poor form.

A run of six defeats from seven matches heading into the year’s first grand slam was the worst of his career and a tally of 45 unforced errors showed that this was far from vintage Nadal.

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Draper looked capable of causing the upset when he took the second set on Rod Laver Arena but physical struggles have hampered his career so far and he began to cramp in the third set before hobbling through the final stages of a 7-5 2-6 6-4 6-1 defeat.

Draper copied Nadal’s look as a child but also modelled his game around his hero, including playing left-handed even though he is naturally right-handed.

Draper’s former coach Justin Sherring told the Daily Telegraph: “We used to base a lot of our game development around Rafa. The things we tried to emulate were not just the lefty style but also the technique, hunger and fighting spirit.”

The influence is clear in Draper’s heavy topspin forehand and solid backhand hit predominantly cross-court but occasionally, and explosively, down the line.

The young British player made his Wimbledon debut against Novak Djokovic on Centre Court in 2021 so this was not an entirely unfamiliar situation, although his ambitions were significantly higher this time.

He settled well into the contest, facing only one break point before a poorly executed drop shot enabled Nadal to claim the opening set.

The top seed pumped his fists in celebration, an indication that it was a big moment for him as he tries to play himself back into form, but he went completely off the boil at the start of the second set.

Mistakes flowed from the Nadal racket and Draper, who might even have taken the set 6-0, did not need to do anything spectacular to level the contest amid a couple of very brief rain delays.

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Nadal admitted ahead of the tournament that a lack of wins had left him feeling more vulnerable than usual but he spoke confidently about his form in practice and belief that it would translate to the match court.

The defending champion had an animated exchange with his team sat courtside ahead of the third set and there was greater assertiveness about his game thereafter.

He was helped by Draper beginning to flag physically, his serve and shots noticeably lacking the same pop.

A wayward double fault from the British player handed Nadal a break for 3-1 but the 22-time grand slam champion was still producing plenty of uncharacteristic errors and he gave the advantage back with a terrible game at 4-2.

Draper was unable to keep the pressure on, though, saving one set point with an ace in the 10th game but pushing a backhand just wide on the second.

He took a long break to change his outfit and offered hope of a comeback with a break of the Nadal serve in the opening game of the fourth set but the Spaniard was at last playing a little better and he hit straight back.

During a long point in the fourth game, Draper began to cramp again, and he was completely hamstrung during the formalities of the final few games.