Rafa Nadal was heading back to the drawing board on Tuesday after another startling early loss at a grand slam deflated his early-season optimism and left him questioning his strategy.
The Spaniard arrived in Melbourne for the start of the Australian Open talking of his ‘happy feelings’ after a strong run at the end of last year and a positive opening to 2016 following a rigorous pre-season fitness camp.
But any hope that Nadal, who turns 30 this year, can revive the glory days when he ruled tennis were blown away in the first round by compatriot Fernando Verdasco, who roared to a 7-6(6) 4-6 3-6 7-6(4) 6-2 triumph.
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Nadal has suffered some crushing early defeats since he won the last of his 14 grand slam titles at the French Open in 2014 — Dustin Brown (at Wimbledon) and Fabio Fognini (U.S. Open) to name but two, but in those he lacked form and fitness.
Against Verdasco, a player he had beaten 14 times in 16 meetings, the physical ailments that have dogged his stellar career were not apparent, his game just looked stale.
“The game is changing a little bit,” the world number five told reporters after only his second career loss in the opening round of a grand slam tournament.
“Everybody now tries to hit all the balls. There are no balls that you can prepare the point. The game has become a little bit more crazy in this aspect.
“I was practicing a little bit different, trying to be more aggressive. I can play defensive or offensive. But if you stay in the middle, then I am dead.”
At his peak Nadal, coached throughout his career by his uncle Toni, wore down opponents with an attritional baseline game before finishing them off with clinical winners.
These days, with wear and tear dulling his lightning speed, his game looks vulnerable against lower-ranked players prepared to attack him — as Verdasco did to devastating effect.
As Toni watched on in the final games, Nadal seemed powerless to stem the tide.
“You cannot be in the middle of being offensive or defensive, because it is obvious that finally you don’t have a consistent strategy, then you are lost,” Nadal said.
The Mallorca native can only hope that he can respond to his first-round defeat like he did when losing to Belgium’s Steve Darcis in the opening round at Wimbledon in 2013.
Then, Nadal rebounded to win the U.S. Open a few weeks later, rolled into the following year by reaching the Australian Open final and went on to claim his ninth French Open title.
“I have been playing and practicing great,” he said.
“It’s tough when you work so much and a very important event arrives and you go out too early. Was not my day, but let’s keep going, that the only thing I can do.”