Australian Open exit a setback but patience is needed for Rafael Nadal’s return to the top

The Spaniard was sent crashing out of the Australian Open at the first attempt, but his renaissance was never going to be as swift as his ascent to the top.

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during a press conference after losing his first round match against his compatriot Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 19 January 2016. Nade Nagi / EPA
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Well, that did not quite go to plan. After a forgettable 2015 that resulted in many low points, this season was meant to represent the start of the Rafael Nadal revival.

It started promisingly: An impressive return to Abu Dhabi resulted in Nadal’s first title of the season, albeit at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, an exhibition event, immediately followed by a march to the Qatar Open final.

The severe beating Nadal received by Novak Djokovic in the Doha final reminded the Spaniard his road back to the pinnacle of men’s tennis will be tough, but still, there is little shame in being beaten by a performance Nadal himself described as “perfect”.

Arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open, Nadal’s game was in good shape, his confidence was bristling, and most importantly, he was in good health. The title, most onlookers would have agreed, was probably beyond the former world No 1, but a run deep into the tournament must have been a reasonable expectation.

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Instead, after five sets and four hours and 45 minutes on court, Nadal was sent packing in the first round of a grand slam for just the second time in his career.

The forgettable 2015 may have included a slip to his lowest ranking in a decade (10), a failure to win a grand slam for the first time in 10 years (he did not even make the semi-final of one), and boast his worst win-loss record since 2004 (61-20), but it did not include any first-round defeats at the majors.

After speaking so candidly in Abu Dhabi about his desire to put last season behind him, it is worrying Nadal has started 2016 in such disappointing fashion.

The doubts over his long-term future will continue to be raised, and his credentials as a grand-slam contender even, dare we say it, at the French Open, will be dismissed.

And yet to write off a potential Nadal renaissance on the basis of an early elimination in Melbourne seems premature.

Unlike his straight-sets defeat to the relatively unknown Steve Darcis in the first round of Wimbledon in 2013, Nadal was handed undoubtedly the toughest task of any of the top seeds in fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.

A player who reached a career high No 7 in 2009, Verdasco, now ranked No 47, has only two settings, the ridiculous or the sublime, and the stats from yesterday’s match exemplified this perfectly: Verdasco hit 90 winners. His unforced errors? 91.

“I played unbelievably in the fifth set,” he said. “I don’t know how I did it. I closed my eyes and everything went in.” That just about sums him up.

Nadal had beaten Verdasco on 14 consecutive occasions but has now lost three of their last four meetings. A sign of Nadal’s waning powers as he struggles to dictate matches against heavy hitters like he used to?

Perhaps. More likely his opponent simply played inspired tennis when, at 0-2 down in the decider, it mattered most.

Of course, if Nadal is serious about reaching the upper echelons of the men’s game again, then he needs to be defeating guys like Verdasco, no matter how maverick his style may be.

Yet, it feels as though Nadal is almost a victim of his own success. Having set such remarkably high standards for himself and expectations for fans, anything less than a top-four ranking and a grand slam title a season is deemed a failure.

His rise to the top was achieved so rapidly and at such a young age we expect his revival to be just as swift. But when dealing with a litany of injuries, the type that directly affect his ability to execute the game plan that made him one of the greatest, Nadal deserves patience.

Several years spent on the injury table have unquestionably taken their toll, but the unshakable belief Nadal has in himself will hold him in good stead.

Still, it feels as though this season will reveal a great deal about his future. If he remains injury free, no longer will a lack of match practice or fitness be deemed worthy excuses for defeats, not even against mavericks like Verdasco.

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