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The tennis world is still stunned at Nadal's Barcelona Open loss to Almagro. Not that his Spanish rival can't hit a mean ball and slide on clay with just about anyone else in the world, but losing the match after a dominating start was so un-Nadal.
Two quarterfinals losses on clay in back-to-back weeks has spawned a lot of questions that can be boiled down to four words:
What's wrong with Rafa?
The paradoxical answer is "not much and quite a lot." Nadal has played several stretches of his dominating clay-court tennis but has given back just as much. He appears healthy, his movement is good and there's no real loss of tennis skills. Technically, he should be at least as close to form as usual.
But there's definitely something wrong with how he is feeling. He's pressing too much at times and does not have the same confident rhythm and patience that allow him to break others' will. Traditionally, Nadal has not been fazed at starting matches slowly. Now, it looks as if he is desperate to start them quickly.
Nadal has almost always been able to pound away with body blows. Now, he wants to lash out with head shots. It's something inside, perhaps pressure at holding on against more emboldened opponents who are willing to attack the Spaniard with revitalized aggressiveness and game plans.
But Nadal is missing on too many of his shots. Too often he is in control, only to inexplicably hit a wayward duck; he's not just hitting unforced errors but feeding into his encroaching opponents.
How much of this is just mental? Success breeds success more than any strategy adjustment or video sessions with Uncle Toni. Nadal only needs to find that extra will once more and play with inspired confidence. It's about reaching back to what is familiar more than reinventing himself.
Yes, the past two weeks have been setbacks, but nothing another match or two can't cure. There's a good chance the old clay-court Nadal will reappear and start wreaking havoc at Madrid and Rome, just like old times. His April struggles would be washed away, and he could very well blossom in May and June.