Rafa Nadal's early exit shows he has lost aura of invincibility
Rafael Nadal's aura is well and truly busted. The 2009 Australian Open champion had finished last season strongly enough to suggest that the dog days might be behind him.
But in Melbourne yesterday he ran into Fernando Verdasco - a man he has regularly beaten up for more than a decade and was blown aside.
The match was a repeat of the famous 2009 semi-final here between these two Spanish left-handers, which many remember as one of the matches of the decade. But that match had a different winner, and a different dynamic.
Back then it was Verdasco, cowed by the size of the challenge in front of him, who double-faulted on the final point. Yesterday it was Nadal (right), plagued by self-doubt as he never was in his pomp, who double-faulted at a critical moment in the first-set tie-break.
He scrapped with his usual indomitable spirit, but in the final set Verdasco, the world No 45, flayed winners from all angles, reeling off six straight games to claim a 7-6, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 win in 4hr 41min.
"It's tough, but I know I did everything that I can to be ready for it," Nadal said last night.
"Was not my day. There is no more things to do than keep practising hard, keep practising the same way that I was doing the last four, five months."
The problem for Nadal is that the word is out on how to beat him. Unless you are Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, two of the few players who could potentially out-rally him, you just have to think big and hit big - the model established by Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon in 2012.
When Rosol pulled off that king-sized upset, Nadal had not gone out before the fourth round of any grand slam for seven years.
Yet yesterday's loss was his third early exit in as many major tournaments. You can see why opponents would now look at a match against him as an opportunity rather than a death sentence.
Yesterday, he admitted that he let Verdasco get off to a flier with a sluggish first-set performance. But Verdasco, who has a reputation for wobbling at the big moments, went to the other extreme this time, delivering fantasy tennis in the final moments. For the last 20 minutes, he was pouncing on Nadal's serves. One running forehand, slapped with no attempt at control, swooped low over the net at what must have been 100mph or more and landed perfectly in the corner.
"I played unbelievably in the fifth set," said Verdasco. "I don't know how I did it. I closed my eyes and everything went in."
He admitted that the 2009 semi-final hung around his neck like an albatross. "Still now they come to me telling me like how good I play seven years ago. I'm like, 'I didn't play again after that?'
"I watched it again maybe 10 times. To learn. It was five hours, so it was many things during that match. But, I mean, in general we played unbelievable, both of us. It was super intense. The difference is just so little and can be so big."
The same sentiment applies to Nadal: a slight reduction in his intensity, in his self-possession, has translated into a major change in results.
He needs to rediscover the predator's instinct, because he has become the hunted. But there is one consolation for the king of clay: the French Open.
That is one tournament where he does not lose to human beings - only to Djokovic. (© Daily Telegraph, London)