BARCELONA • Despite Rafael Nadal insisting he's had "a positive week", all appears not right with the "King of Clay" after he slumped to a 6-4, 6-4 semi-final loss at the Barcelona Open - his first at this stage of the tournament - to Austria's Dominic Thiem on Saturday.
It comes just a week after the Spaniard was dethroned as the Monte Carlo Masters champion by Italian Fabio Fognini. The latest defeat was a dispiriting exit at a tournament he has won 11 times, but Nadal insisted there were a lot of positives to be had from his performance, having "come from a lot of low moments in Monte Carlo".
The world No. 2, just four weeks away from getting his French Open title defence under way, said: "Today was the first day I felt really confident on the clay, it's my best match on the surface this year.
"My confidence is back, thanks to this week. I really believe that I've made improvements. This is a good base to try and achieve my goals for the next couple of weeks."
Nadal was also optimistic about his immediate future with Masters events in Madrid - the only clay-court title he failed to lift last year - and Rome to come before Roland Garros commences, adding: "I enjoyed the match, I'm feeling the way I want to feel about my game. I'm happy and I'm confident."
But while the 17-time Grand Slam winner endures a crisis of confidence on his favoured surface, at least by his high standards, Thiem is going from strength to strength.
The fifth-ranked clay-court specialist, who lost in last year's French Open final to Nadal, is now the second man after top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia to have beaten Nadal on the red dirt at least four times, and he called his achievement "one of his best wins".
He said: "It always requires an incredible performance to beat Rafa. It's his best surface, he's the best to ever play on it. This win doesn't feel different than my other ones against Rafa.
"It's always very special to beat him on clay or any other surface."
In yesterday's final, Thiem defeated Russia's Daniil Medvedev 6-4, 6-0.
Over in Germany, world No. 1 Naomi Osaka expanded more on the abdominal injury which forced her to withdraw from her Stuttgart Open semi-final match against Estonia's Anett Kontaveit on Saturday.
The Japanese said: "I'm really sorry I'm not able to compete. I was waiting till today to see if I could get better but I didn't. I'm really sorry for everyone who came out, and I hope to see you next year."
Separately, former world No. 1 Andy Murray said he is under no pressure to return to competitive tennis after undergoing hip resurfacing surgery earlier this year, but he would attempt to make a comeback if his body allowed it.
The three-time Grand Slam champion told the BBC at yesterday's London Marathon, where he was invited to fire the starting pistol for the elite men's race: "I have been hitting the ball from a stationary position, but I haven't been doing any movement. I don't feel any pressure to get playing again but, if my body will allow, I will try."
He had previously said he would target a comeback at Wimbledon, albeit as a doubles player. This year's Wimbledon begins on July 1.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS