Rafa Nadal was heading back to the drawing board yesterday 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.
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 (US 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 US 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.”
Nadal also tried his best to shrug off his latest setback and pledged to fight on. But he said he was not seeking excuses as he heads home to work towards his favourite Grand Slam at Roland Garros, where he is a nine-time champion, in late May.
“The match is a tough loss for me, especially because it’s not like last year when I arrived here playing bad and feeling myself not ready for it,” Nadal said. “This year was a completely different story. I have been working so much... It’s tough, but at the same time, I know I did everything that I can to be ready for it. There is no more thing to do than keep practising hard, keep practising the same way that I was doing the last four, five months.”
It was one of the worst ever Grand Slam performances for Nadal, who also lost in the 2013 Wimbledon first round and has not won a major title since the 2014 French Open.
He has now failed to go further than the quarter-finals in his last six Grand Slams, as well as missing the 2014 US Open through injury.
His exit also continues a series of heartbreaks at the year’s first Grand Slam tournament in Melbourne.
He missed the 2006 and 2013 editions through injury, had to retire injured against Andy Murray in 2010, and in 2011 he was hit by a muscle strain during his defeat to David Ferrer.
And in 2014, Nadal was hit by a back problem when he lost to Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka in the final.  
Of his 14 Grand Slam successes, only one has come in Melbourne, in 2009.