Rafael Nadal said he took a lot of positives out of the Australian Open on his return from injury, despite being thrashed in the final on Sunday by Novak Djokovic.
The Spanish second seed had played an outstanding level of tennis at the tournament without dropping a set until her met his arch-rival on Rod Laver Arena.
And he had no answer to the world number one’s booming groundstrokes and precision serve to limp out of Melbourne Park 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Nadal said he still wasn’t at his best after his injury-plagued 2018. “Was unbelievable the way that he played, no doubt about that. But at the same time it is true that probably physically I was not able [to compete at that level],” said Nadal.
“Five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, I needed something else. That something else probably today, I don’t have it yet.
“That’s my feeling, to compete at this super high level.”
Despite the rout, Nadal said he was content with being able to reach the final given the injury problems that prevented him playing any matches after the US Open until he got to Melbourne.
“I have been going through tough moments in the last year. [I have played] only nine events and since the US Open I was not able to play until the first round here,” he said.
“Even if tonight was not my night it’s so important for me to be where I am coming back from injury.
“I really believe I played a great two weeks of tennis, there’s a good energy and good inspiration for what is coming.”
Nadal had not played a main tour event since a knee problem forced him to retire during his US Open semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro in September.
‘I need matches’
The 32-year-old had surgery on his ankle in November to remove a loose intra-articular body and only resumed training in December.
He played the opening round at an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi to start his season, where he lost to South African Kevin Anderson, and withdraw from the warm-up Brisbane International.
“The only thing probably that I need is time and more matches,” he said of getting to a sufficient level to challenge Djokovic at his imperious best.
“I need work, and I need more weeks like this one. That’s really the only thing that I hope – to have the chance to keep practising well and to have the chance to keep playing and stay healthy.
“I need matches, but I can’t go crazy to play matches,” he added. “I have my age. I have my calendar. I have my priorities. My priority now is come back home, have some rest.”
He is targeting his next tournament at Acapulco at the end of February and then Indian Wells in early March.
“Then we see, depend how things go, I keep going or I take a rest before I play on clay,” he said.
Despite not being at his best in Melbourne Nadal nevertheless shattered the dreams of three of the hottest new stars – 19-year-old Alex de Minaur, 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 20 – en route to the final.
And the Spaniard, with 17 Grand Slam titles to his name, vowed there was more to come.
“I’m going to keep fighting hard to be a better player,” he said.