Australian Open

Tennis: Nadal felled by crazy hitting

Rafael Nadal is unable to disguise his anguish as he is beaten in the first round of the Australian Open. The fifth seed insisted that he felt competitive during his five-set loss to compatriot Fernando Verdasco but could not explain how he had faile
Rafael Nadal is unable to disguise his anguish as he is beaten in the first round of the Australian Open. The fifth seed insisted that he felt competitive during his five-set loss to compatriot Fernando Verdasco but could not explain how he had failed to convert practice-court form into a match situation.PHOTO: REUTERS

Spaniard admits tennis is changing as he fails to deal with Verdasco's shots

MELBOURNE • Rafael Nadal did his best to shrug off his latest Grand Slam setback yesterday and pledged to fight on - despite the "crazy", go-for-broke tennis now played by some of his rivals.

The 14-time Grand Slam champion was felled in the opening round of the Australian Open by fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.

In only his second first-round loss at a Grand Slam event, Nadal fought for 4hr 41min before the inspired Verdasco won 7-6 (8-6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.

But Nadal was not seeking excuses as he heads home to work towards his favourite Grand Slam at Roland Garros, where he is a nine-time champion, in late May.

"The match is a tough loss for me, especially because it's not like last year when I arrived here playing bad and feeling myself not ready for it," said the former world No. 1.

"This year was a completely different story. I have been playing and practising great and working so much.

"It's tough, but at the same time, I know I did everything that I can to be ready for it. Was not my day. Let's keep going. That's the only thing."

Nadal had spoken of bringing "happy feelings" to Melbourne Park, having arrived at his healthiest in years following a taxing off-season training camp. But his exit will do little to dispel the belief that his best days are behind him.

He has now failed to go further than the quarter-finals in his last six Grand Slams, as well as missing the 2014 US Open through injury.

His only other first-round defeat in a Grand Slam was against Belgium's Steve Darcis at Wimbledon in 2013.

Leading 2-0 in the final set yesterday, Nadal was in the box seat to prevail in a highly physical encounter, but Verdasco dragged himself off the canvas to win six straight games with a barrage of forehand winners.

The world No. 45 sealed the classic in style, breaking Nadal's serve for a third time in the set with a flashing cross-court winner.

Nadal, who had beaten Verdasco 14 times in 16 meetings before yesterday, said he was facing new challenges, with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic now dominating the Grand Slams and his rivals also beefing up their games.

"The game is changing a little bit. Everybody now tries to hit all the balls," he said. "Everybody hits the ball hard and try to go for the winners in any position.

"The game has become a little bit more crazy in this aspect. But the real thing is my mission and to make them play with difficult positions.

"So, if they want to go for lot of winners with very difficult positions, the chance of having success is not very high. So, that's the mistake for me today."

Verdasco mixed 90 winners with 91 unforced errors as he gained partial revenge for his epic five-set defeat by Nadal seven years ago in the second-longest match recorded at the Australian Open.

"Still (people) tell me how good I played seven years ago," Verdasco said. "I'm like, 'I didn't play again after that?' Even last night they told me at the hotel (about the 2009 match) and I'm like, 'I play against him tomorrow'."

He said he had watched a full replay of the 2009 semi-final about 10 times to learn from his mistakes but felt he was suffering a touch of deja vu yesterday.

"Today's match was very similar," said the southpaw, who served a double-fault to end the 2009 encounter. "I was for a second thinking about semi-finals and I was like, 'Please I don't want to lose with a double fault in 5-4, 30-40.'"

Instead, the 32-year-old served masterfully in each tie-break, particularly in the second, to keep the match alive.

Fortune often favours the brave and a mis-hit return off the frame of Verdasco's racket clipped the line and allowed him to break back in the decider. He did not let the luck go to waste.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'NADAL FELLED BY 'CRAZY' HITTING'. Print Edition | Subscribe