I didn’t see Rafael Nadal lose live the other night at the Australian Open first round, but I caught it on the DVR replay. Credit to Fernando Verdasco who seemed to be on a mission to get revenge for that tough 2009 loss in the semifinals. And not only did he get it, he gave Rafa a loss that he’ll be thinking about for a long, long time.
After a tough first nine month of 2015 culminating with that horrible collapse to Fabio Fognini from up two sets at the US Open, Nadal started to play better again in the fall. He started beating Top 10 guys, competing well, getting length on his shots and playing with confidence. He wasn’t back, but he was better.
But Tuesday’s loss crushed all that progress. It took 4 hours, 41 minutes to undo all the work he had put in to get back to some kind of form. Only it was worse.
The balls were landing short, the serve has no zip and then in the end with a 2-0 lead, he just didn’t have the belief he could win. All those losses like to Fognini, to Dustin Brown at Wimbledon bubbled-up and choked him in the end.
From 2-0 up in the fifth Rafa lost six straight games to Verdasco. Granted Verdasco played well, but Rafa teed him up and Fernando swung away and connected.
And so another early Grand Slam exit, this his earliest ever at the Australian Open and just his second of his career in the first round at a Slam.
What’s stunning about this decline is it’s happening while Rafa’s healthy. For the better part of his career it seems all we talked about were those damn knees or some other ailment. Not so during the last 12 months.
So Rafa will now head to South America, maybe win a title or two if he’s lucky, but the reality is he’s not getting any younger and he’s lost that fear factor, even on clay. Maybe he gets some outside coaching help which I think would help, but I doubt that happens.
And I can say now he’ll never get to No. 1 again, not with Novak Djokovic playing like he is. And unless he can get some length on his shots, he’s not going to win much on clay either.
That said, the good news is I think this is still a mental thing. The bad news is that this is a mental thing. Who really knows how long it takes for him to recover from this latest defeat. The next time he plays a quality opponent in a Slam that mind is going to start spinning again and he’ll fall apart again, right before our eyes.
And the real problem for Nadal is he’s not getting any younger. He turns 30 in June. That’s right THIRTY! So even if he eventually does get his head straight, it might be too late. His body may have long given in to all the miles.
I just hope I’m wrong.
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