In many ways, Nadal was unlucky to lose that encounter to a top of the line Raonic. But I believed he would use that showing in California to spur himself on in Florida. His draw in Miami was kind. Nadal opened up with a routine 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Nicolas Almagro after a first round bye, and then took on another countryman for a place in the round of 16. That compatriot was fellow southpaw Fernando Verdasco.
We are talking about the man Nadal had beaten the first 13 times they clashed before finally losing once. To be sure, there had been one exceedingly close call for Nadal among all of those victories, and that was his collision with Verdasco in the penultimate round of the 2009 Australian Open. For five hours and 14 minutes, across an exhausting evening of pendulum swinging, sparkling and pulsating tennis, through plot twists and turns that kept the Melbourne audience and fans all over the globe emotionally spellbound, Nadal and Verdasco pushed each other above and beyond reason. In the end, Nadal willed his way through that one with sheer temerity as Verdasco took his shotmaking virtuosity to a level he had never explored before. Serving at 4-4 in the fifth set, Nadal was down 0-30, theoretically six points away from a bruising defeat. Somehow he summoned the discipline, determination and perspicacity to prevail over a madly inspired rival 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4.
Verdasco established a residence for himself in lofty territory for a brief yet not insignificant stretch. He finished 2009 and 2010 at No. 9 in the world, and stationed himself at a career best No. 7 in the world during the spring of 2009. But he has never been back in a semifinal at a Grand Slam event since that pivotal moment against Nadal in 2009. He has gone to three more quarterfinals at the majors, and nearly made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon two years ago. He took a two sets to love lead over Andy Murray in a crackling Centre Court quarterfinal encounter before Murray rallied systematically for a 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 win.
The 31-year-old Spaniard is still a dangerous competitor, but the fact remains that he concluded 2011 and 2012 at No. 24 in the world, falling to No. 30 in 2013, ending 2014 at No. 33. He currently stands at No. 34. Verdasco achieved his first win over Nadal (and thus ended the 13 match losing streak against his revered adversary) in 2012 at Madrid, but that breakthrough victory was explained in part by Nadal’s extreme distaste for the blue clay courts that were used experimentally that year in Spain. Not only did Nadal detest those courts, but so, too, did Novak Djokovic, and the experiment was over almost before it began. Since 2013, red clay has been restored in Madrid.
In any event, Nadal knew he could not afford to take Verdasco lightly when they met in Miami. This was their first head to head duel since the Madrid confrontation three years ago. Verdasco is a rousing shotmaker, explosive from the backcourt, willing to go for it, eager to confront the best players on the planet whenever he can. But there was no reason to believe that Nadal would be unduly worried by this round of 32 duel. He knew what to expect, understood what was required to contain a big hitting yet ever streaky opponent, and realized that it was essentially in his hands to determine the outcome of this showdown. In many ways, this was Nadal’s match to win or lose; Verdasco could unleash brilliance in sporadic clusters, but Nadal was the man who should have had both the defense and the aggression to get the job done comfortably.
It did not work out that way. Verdasco may have preferred the opportunity of playing Nadal so early in the tournament, before the world No. 3 had time to hit his stride and sink his teeth into the event, before the charismatic 14 time victor at the majors could fully settle into his surroundings. That partially explains why Nadal unperformed so badly and Verdasco managed to record a 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 upset triumph. But the larger explanation surrounds the currently wounded psyche of a champion celebrated more than anything else for his supreme mental toughness and durability as a competitor. At the moment, after an arduous past year of injuries, disruptions and disappointments, Nadal is far away from the top of his mental game. Not only did he lose to Verdasco because his ground game lacked depth and pace,or due to a forehand that let him down at critical stages,but the larger truth was that Nadal got beaten because he lost his nerve when it counted.
It was an unremarkable match in many ways. To his credit, Verdasco was uncharacteristically stable, competing with seldom exhibited equanimity, keeping his level of play reasonably high throughout the contest. But he may well have been buoyed by the obvious signs of emotional discomfort from Nadal. In the opening set, Verdasco went ahead 5-3. Nadal was far too frequently on his heels, defending regularly even on his own serve, sending too many shots down the middle with no sting, allowing Verdasco to set the tempo too easily.
But Nadal broke back for 4-5, and moved to 30-0 in the following game. Well positioned to make his way back to 5-5 and perhaps alter the complexion of the match, Nadal pressed off the forehand and missed flagrantly. Verdasco sensed an opening, moved to 30-30, and then coaxed another error off the renowned Nadal forehand. Serving at 4-5, 30-40, set point down, Nadal elected to go down the line off another relatively easy forehand, and miss-hit it long. From a 30-0 lead and a good look at a 5-5 deadlock, Nadal had squandered four crucial points in a row to lose the set.
The No. 2 seed escaped early in the second set when Verdasco could have gone up a service break, and soon Nadal found his groove to take that set 6-2. He raised his level of aggression, opening up the court more regularly, taking the initiative away from a flustered Verdasco. But Nadal failed to follow through on that burst of momentum.
He could have broken in the first game of the final set but that opportunity eluded him. Nadal quickly fell back into passivity. Verdasco bolted in front, struggled somewhat but held on to reach 5-2, and then served it out at 5-3 with considerable help from Nadal, who failed to keep enough returns in play. At match point down, Nadal had a routine backhand return but bungled it. That was another sign of tension from the four time Miami finalist. He did not seem to really believe that he could come back after a dismal start in the final set, and doubts translated into reality.
What does this defeat mean for Nadal? It is indisputably a setback, and not the way he wanted to approach the clay court circuit. He knows that losing to Verdasco is unjustifiable. Now he has played six tournaments in 2015, winning one in Buenos Aires on clay, registering victories in 15 of 20 matches. But he has not been himself for an extended period. He has been talking himself into problems he does not need, allowing his humility to become more of a liability than an asset. He has been beating himself up to a large degree. His outlook has been clouded.
That is the bad news. The good news is that Nadal’s next five tournaments will be on the clay. He will start in Monte Carlo–a a Masters 1000 event he has won eight times–the week after next and then compete in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome before setting his sights on a tenth French Open crown. This long stretch on clay can only be good for his heart and soul. But even returning to the arena on his favorite surface will not necessarily be a smooth transition. There are scenarios where Nadal could fall from his current status at No. 3 in the world down to No. 5 next week. He is losing a large chunk of the 600 Emirates ATP Ranking Points he garnered in Miami by reaching the final a year ago, which could result in tougher draws at the start of the upcoming clay court campaign.
Whether that happens or not, Nadal has his work cut out for him. He needs at least one tournament win and probably two events on his way to Roland Garros to put himself in the right frame of mind for a tenth title run at the shrine of clay court tennis. But we can be certain he will not get ahead of himself. Nadal is looking to rebuild his inner security slowly, steadily and meaningfully. He is one of the most refreshingly candid individuals in the world of sports, and has conceded that nerves have been his chief enemy as of late. Over the course of this clay court season and beyond, Nadal will defeat that enemy, just as he has beaten back all of the others. He is facing the music forthrightly, as he always has.
I have been following tennis avidly for fifty years, and have made my living as a writer on this game for more than forty. In my view, Nadal is the greatest competitor in the history of the sport. Everyone lauds the Spaniard for his imposing physicality, his fearsome forehand, and the severity of his spin. But Rafael Nadal has no greater weapon than his mind. He has been struggling inordinately inside that chamber all year long, but he will climb out of this crisis in the near future and reclaim his greatness. I make that case with full conviction.