On a day when Andy Murray, Roger Federer both played like crap while Rafael Nadal looked halfway decent, it was Nadal who got sent to the exits in the third round at Indian Wells in a thriller 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) by Alexandr Dolgoplov.
Nadal, who came into the event as the defending champion, was the heavy favorite against Dolgopolov, a man he had beaten all five times without the loss of a set including a routine win a few weeks ago in the Rio final.
But credit to The Dog who on this night really brought out his bark and his bite, sizzling winners off both wings and keeping Nadal (and the audience) off-balance behind his unorthodox array of shotmaking.
When in full flight, as Jim Courier said, Alex is quite breathtaking. And he was tonight.
Nadal got off to a slow start then revved things up in the second. But the Ukraine, who’s playing for more than himself of late if you have read the news, wasn’t deterred. He raced out to a 5-2 lead in the final set only mentally cave in.
Was Nadal going to escape again? It looked like it.
Rafa quickly leveled at winning 10 straight points for 5-5. And as we entered a final set breaker the World No. 1 seemed in control – against guys like Nadal you usually get one chance, if that, and Alex blew his. Dolgopolov had other ideas. Showing his mental strength, the 25-year-old hung tough in the breaker then serving 6-5 for for the match, he shrugged off on overruled ace then managed to outrally Nadal to officially win it.
In his press conference just concluded on the Tennis Channel, Nadal insisted the back wasn’t the issue (he looked fine by my eye test), it was Alex who just played better than him on this day, and he’s right.
So where are we at with Rafa? Well, as I said yesterday he’s just not the same player he was a year ago. This is further evidence. Before the back, he still lost sets to Peter Gojowycz and Gael Monfils. And since the back he struggled against Pablo Andujar and Radek Stepanek, and now Dolgopolov took him down.
It’s not so much he lost early at Indian Wells, it’s just that he’s losing sets and now matches to players he shouldn’t, and we just don’t know right now how he stacks up against his biggest rival Novak.
So 2.5 months into the season I just don’t know where’s Rafa’s game is at, and he might not either.
What I do know is that this loss should light a fire under Novak Djokovic who, by the way, also didn’t look that great in his first round win Sunday. This should also give Federer hope and perhaps even Murray who frankly looked like a mess today against the youngster Jiri Vesely. So like I said last week, this tournament is really wide open with 6-10 players capable of leaving with the title. So who’ll take it? I don’t know (maybe Wawrinka who actually playing the best), but the Madness of March is here. Believe it.
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