Australian Open: Nadal crashes out of first round
After his five-set defeat in Melbourne, does the Spaniard still have what it takes to mix it with the best players on the circuit?
Rafael Nadal has become the biggest casualty of the Australian Open first round, losing to fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco over five sets.
After this 7-6, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 defeat, Nadal's "aura is well and truly busted", says Simon Briggs, in the Daily Telegraph.
While it is only the second time the player has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam, it is the third successive major tournament that he has exited in the first week.
But it was the manner as well as the fact of his defeat that resonated. The former world number one was blown away in the final set as his opponent won six games in a row.
It was revenge for Verdasco seven years after he lost to Nadal at Melbourne in an epic semi-final, a match regarded as one of the greatest - and, at five hours and 40 minutes, one of the longest - of the last decade.
Back in 2009, the player was "cowed by the size of the challenge in front of him", says Briggs, noting: "Today it was Nadal, plagued by self-doubt as he never was in his pomp, who double-faulted at a critical moment in the first-set tie-break, and never quite got back on terms."
Time has taken its toll on the Spaniard once "so full of energy and unrestrained passion", says Kevin Mitchell, of The Guardian. "Now, after injuries, he is looking older than his 30 years, his trademark furrowed brow sitting under a thinning thatch, the bandana not so rakishly piratical as it once was, the muscular top-spin forehand falling a little shorter inside the court, the fierce gaze not so intimidating.
"None of this seems right, but the world number five, who has been magnificent for so long and whose steady improvement towards the end of last season encouraged the view he had a chance, at least, of restoring some of his aura, constantly reminds us that sport was not meant to be fair."
Nadal could have a serious problem, adds Peter Bodo, of ESPN. "The confidence battle that played such a prominent role in Nadal's fortunes last year seems to have evaporated, but there appears to be a more tangible, practical issue now," he says.
It is a physical rather than mental problem the player now faces. "He has squandered a significant amount of his once-immense mystique and, for complex reasons, his forehand is no longer the weapon it once was. In fairness, he can still lay the hammer down on most ATP players. But the elite competitors and the shot-makers who get on a roll, like Verdasco did Tuesday, have become a problem."
And, as Briggs of the Telegraph notes, lower-ranked opponents now see a draw against Nadal as "an opportunity rather than a death sentence".