MADRID • Rafael Nadal heads into the final fortnight of the French Open countdown facing uncertainty after crashing out in his bid for a sixth Madrid Open title.
Spain's formerly invincible "King of Clay", who in most years would have at least one title on the red dirt upon arrival at Roland Garros, will have a last chance in Rome to pick up a trophy.
His mission at the Italian Open starting today will be to try and rescue his form before the start of the Grand Slam where he dreams of collecting a record 12th title.
Just like his semi-final exits in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Nadal went down at the same stage to young gun Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, with the ninth-ranked Greek exposing some of the emerging fault lines in the game of the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
After Saturday's loss, Nadal said that while he had "won a lot for many years on this surface, this year, it hasn't been like that".
He added: "Not winning here means that I'm not going back to my hotel happy, but I still have tennis ahead of me."
Revealing his long-term focus was "to be fit, play properly and have a high tennis level", he said: "If I manage to do that, I will have a good opportunity to fight for titles for the rest of the year."
After starting slowly on clay last month after another knee injury-enforced break, Nadal, 32, is hopeful of making quick progress.
He said: "I've done a few steps forward, maybe not enough, but I have improved some things. We'll see (for how long) I can (continue to) play at a high level and I will be able to continue.
"If I'm not able to do these things properly, that is the end of the situation, period.
"This is a sport and, in a sport, it's a matter of winning and sometimes, losing and accepting both as naturally as possible."
The world No. 2 will be defending his title in Rome after beating Germany's Alexander Zverev last year and has been given a bye into the second round, where he will face one of two Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet or Jeremy Chardy.
While the eighth-time champion would love to extend the streak this week, Nadal said he was also "just playing for my happiness".
ATP ITALIAN OPEN
Day 1: StarHub Ch201, 5pm