Rafael Nadal, do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Dylan Thomas’s famous lines would resonate deeply with the wishes of the tennis fraternity at large as they watched the Spaniard bow out of the 2016 Australian Open on Tuesday.
The first-round exit at hands of compatriot Fernando Verdasco came as a crushing blow to Nadal’s recently stitched-up morale; and a red flag, perhaps the reddest of flags, to reconfirm the waning of a champion player. A moment, another in an ever-growing list, to make you genuinely wonder: has the most stubborn of fighters to ever grace the game finally run out of comebacks?
The five-set defeat suffered on Tuesday was a definite sign that Nadal’s issues could no longer be linked solely to his confidence or lack thereof. These now firmly reflect in his game which, at the age of 29 and post a few injury-ravaged seasons, misses the ferocity of old and lacks that incredible capacity to outlast opponents.
Out of comebacks
Verdasco is aged 32, unseeded and ranked 45 in the world. He is no Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis, Dustin Brown or Nick Kyrgios – the relative unknowns who stormed from nowhere to upset Nadal at Wimbledon – or even Fabio Fognini – the plucky Italian who did the same at the US Open last year. Seven years ago, Verdasco had given eventual champion Nadal one hell of a semi-final match at the same venue in a losing cause – a five-setter that lasted over five hours. That he would once again give the 14-time Grand Slam winner a run for his money wasn’t surprising. It was rather expected.
In that sense, this was Nadal’s least shocking early exit from a Slam in the last four years. Yet it was perhaps the most upsetting considering both his preparation for the tournament and the familiarity of his first opponent: you knew it was coming, Rafa, and you were still powerless?
Nadal’s form heading into the year’s first Grand Slam had been sound. Ahead of the tournament, his words radiated positivity, his body language was proof of greater self-belief and he looked like a man ready to make a fine fist of the year 2016. Sure, only ten days back he had been brushed aside in the final of the Qatar Open by world number one Novak Djokovic but that wasn’t too disheartening. Because the Djoker is anyway playing like an unethical mutant hybrid, a cross between Rafa at his best and Roger Federer in his prime. He has become the holy grail of tennis, whereas Nadal had only just moved forward from taking baby steps again. Now, he’s moved a few steps back.
As he left the Rod Laver Arena a shattered man, Nadal waved the crowd an almost apologetic goodbye. He wore the look of a man who couldn’t believe that it had happened to him again; of a man who no longer felt his fate on the court was in his own hands. And he had ample reason to believe so because of the way his opponent played on the day.
Verdasco went for broke and in doing so made sure he would win or lose the match virtually on his own terms. Nadal hardly seemed to have a say, confining himself to hoping his opponent’s oft-golden touch would desert him eventually. It did not. Although Verdasco raked up an astonishing 91 unforced errors, he offset this by making a jaw-dropping 90 winners. In the 2009 semi-final, he had made better numbers: 76 unforced errors and 95 winners.
The real difference was at the other end of the court. Nadal produced only 37 winners, down from 52 in 2009, and 38 unforced errors, up from only 25 seven years ago. His foremost weapon, the forehand, didn’t do much “in terms of creating damage”, as Nadal pointed out after the match, which naturally translated into very little dominance and allowed Verdasco to “keep hitting winners”. This was especially worrying considering that in recent weeks Nadal had changed his racquet strings in a bid to impart more topspin on his shots. There was little evidence of any sustained bite in his shots.
By the end, Nadal could only find solace in “being competitive”. Although the younger of the two Spaniards nearly took the match in the fourth set, he surrendered meekly in the fifth to lose 6-7 (6-8) 6-4 6-3 6-7 (4-7) 2-6. In losing six straight games in the final set, Nadal was a shadow of the man who had made it a habit of never knowing when he was beaten.
Akarsh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer who tweets here.