It's not time for a full-blown panic attack, but Rafael Nadal's torrid defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic at the Sony Open is something to closely monitor.
Yes, the tournament at Crandon Park routinely acts as a thorn in Nadal's side. He's now finished as the runner-up four times in Miami. Still, it's not a make-or-break tournament for the Spaniard, who typically ups the ante at Grand Slams.
But this time was different. It wasn't just that Nadal lost. It's how he lost.
The 6-3, 6-3 defeat on Sunday was marred by some of the strangest play fans have seen from Nadal in quite some time. His forehand and backhand were noticeably off. The second serve crushed him. He simply looked a tad slow, as Christopher Clarey of The New York Times illustrates:
Can the "King of Clay" be saved as the clay portion of the season approaches? Fans have seen this story before, as Nadal struggles against stiff competition on hard surfaces—including Djokovic, as Nadal has lost 14 of 21 matches against his archnemesis on the surface.
But then Nadal rebounds for an epic comeback. Can it happen again?
Maybe, but the budding trends are a bit alarming. There's not much competition out there for Nadal with Roger Federer and Andy Murray in regression mode, but he did struggle mightily with Milos Raonic in the quarterfinal.
Djokovic has now defeated Nadal three straight times. Last year, the two dueled through five sets of agony in a classic at Roland Garros. The talent differential on clay may be shrinking between Djokovic and Nadal, as is the gap between the top rankings in the world, as Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times points out:
For what it's worth, Nadal was calm and collected after the loss, an approach he will surely take into the clay-court season, as captured by BBC Sport:
"No frustration. That's tennis. I played a few games and a few points with right way, with right intensity. But for the rest, easy to analyse. The opponent was better than me. That's it."
Fair enough. Nadal will presumably look better on clay, and his epic battles with Djokovic will of course be the spotlight of the upcoming season. As long as Nadal is healthy, the two are destined for more bouts, but a rarity like the beatdown in Miami is hard to like for Nadal backers.
Djokovic made Nadal look ordinary, and regardless of effort level, that's a feat in itself. There's something to be said for momentum, and after two lackluster performances, Nadal has very little as he heads into a friendly environment.
That sounds like something the competition can take advantage of if Nadal does not return to form immediately.
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