MONTE CARLO • Rafael Nadal admitted that it will be "hard to return to the practice court" after a shock semi-final defeat by Fabio Fognini ended his bid for a record-extending 12th Monte Carlo Masters title on Saturday.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion starts his Barcelona Open title defence on Wednesday, as he also fights to keep his world No. 2 ranking before the French Open gets under way next month.
The 32-year-old said he played "one of my worst matches in 14 years on clay" in losing 6-4, 6-2 to Italian Fognini, having been forced to save three match points at 5-0 in the second set.
"It will be hard to return to the practice court," a subdued Nadal said after his fourth loss to Fognini, three of which have come on his beloved clay. "I lost an opportunity in a very important event for me. I'm sad for that."
Nadal has struggled with knee injuries this season, and was playing his first event since withdrawing before an Indian Wells semi-final against Roger Federer last month.
"There was little chance for me to start the clay-court season in a perfect way," he insisted.
"It was a bad day, the kind of day where the feeling is not there at all. It's difficult to find positive ways.
"I was lucky to win two (second-set) games to avoid an even worse score. I'm thinking about how bad I played, (trying to) understand the things. Coming back from injuries, winning and winning and winning is not easy.
"(It's been a) year and a half of not having the chance to play tournaments in a row (due to injury)."
Nadal, who will still be favourite to win a 12th French Open crown at Roland Garros, has plenty of ranking points on the line before heading to Paris, with titles to defend in Barcelona and Rome.
A slip outside the top two could set up a potential meeting with old rival Novak Djokovic, winner of the last three Grand Slam tournaments, before the final.
The "king of clay" will have to bounce back quickly to allay fears he is now vulnerable on the red dirt.
The Spanish great is also yet to win an ATP title this season. The last year he reached May without a tournament victory was in his third season in 2004.
In yesterday's final, Fognini thrilled a crowd comprising mainly his countrymen as he defeated Serbia's Dusan Lajovic 6-3, 6-4.
The 13th seed, based just 20km over the border in San Remo, became the first Italian to lift a trophy here in 51 years, emulating Nicola Pietrangeli, who watched his record fall from the royal box at the Monte Carlo Country Club.
The 85-year-old won the trophy in the principality in 1961, 1967 and 1968. He came onto the court after the trophy ceremony to pose for pictures with his new tennis heir.
The 48th-ranked Lajovic was playing in the first ATP final of his career and got to the title match without the loss of a set.