Rafael Nadal fell to countryman Fernando Verdasco in the first round of the Australian Open on Monday, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2. The 4-hour, 41-minute match marks yet another disappointment for the Spaniard, who had previously only lost in the first round of a Grand Slam once in his career.
Dig a little deeper into the weeds of Nadal’s recent struggles and you’ll find all the signs of a career in free-fall: the 29-year-old has struggled with knee injuries and confidence, which have taken a major toll on his game.
Nadal’s 2015 season was, by all accounts, the worst since he won his first major in 2005. The 14-time Grand Slam champion lost at the French Open for the first time since 2009. He reached zero Grand Slam finals that season, the first time he failed to do so in 11 years. Two early-round upsets at Grand Slams were especially worrisome: at Wimbledon he bowed out in the second-round to Germany’s Dustin Brown; at the U.S. Open Italy’s Fabio Fognini knocked him out in the third round. In all, 2015 saw Nadal win his fewest number of tournaments (three) since 2004with his ranking sliding down to No. 10 at one point.
After a loss to Verdasco at the Miami Open in 2015, Nadal revealed than anxiety was plaguing his game more than usual:
“…[A]t the same time, [I am] still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing with a little bit of anxious on that moments,” Nadal said. “I have been able to control my emotions during, let’s say 90 per cent, 95 per cent of the matches in my career — something that today is tougher, to be under self-control.”
Between Nadal’s physical and mental tribulations, there’s increasing worry that we’ll never see the Nadal of old. The Telegraph wrote that he is plummeting at a rate faster than anyone expected; Chris Chase of USA Today’s FTW penned a piece entitled, “Rafael Nadal, as we know him, is finished.”
Pete Sampras added to the chorus, saying that players on tour don’t fear Nadal like they used to.
“Guys don’t fear him as much and it’s tough to play defence out there. Mentally and physically he’s been out there a while and it’s taking its toll,” Sampras said.
Nadal’s first-round loss at the Australian Open will only augment the worries that Nadal is fading into oblivion. A player so reliant on defence, Nadal can no longer stand well beyond the baseline and retrieve everything like he used to. His forehand is not the same.
But in fairness to Nadal’s most recent victor, it’s worth noting that Verdasco needed 90 winners over five sets to best Nadal, who hit 37 winners and 38 errors on Monday. Verdasco is an erratic and often out-of-control lefty; against Nadal at the Australian Open, though, his whole arsenal seemed to be working.
“I just started hitting winners, I don’t know how,” Verdasco said afterwards. “I was just closing the eyes and everything was going in.”
Nevertheless, a loss is a loss, and this one won’t do much good for Nadal’s confidence as he tries to rebound in form in 2016. Luckily, he’ll play exclusively on clay — by far his best surface — through the end of May.
“The match is a tough loss for me, obviously, especially because this is not like last year when I arrived here playing bad and feeling not ready for it,” Nadal said afterwards. “This year was a completely different story. I have been playing and practicing great and working so much. It’s tough when you work so much and arrive at a very important event and you go out too early.”