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What Rafa Nadal's Latest Defeat Means for Australian Open Hopes

Christopher Simpson@@CJSimpsonBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2015

Rafael Nadal lost his second consecutive match since his return from appendicitis.
Rafael Nadal lost his second consecutive match since his return from appendicitis.Osama Faisal/Associated Press

Rafael Nadal's hopes of a strong showing at the Australian Open can be called into question after the Spaniard suffered a shock defeat to Michael Berrer in Round 1 of the Qatar Open on Tuesday.

Despite a commanding start in the opening set, Nadal allowed Berra—ranked 127th in the world—to recover and win 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Speaking after the game, Nadal admitted there was a chance he would not even feature in Australia. 

According to Agence France-Presse (h/t The Sydney Morning Herald), he said: "I also want to play in the Australian Open which is a tournament I like a lot. I don't know if that will be the case either, but I am going to work for it. If not I will be playing at Rio and Buenos Aires."

The 28-year-old appears to be suffering the effects of missing a significant amount of last season through illness and injury. Nadal missed three months after picking up an injury to his right wrist at Wimbledon, before undergoing an appendectomy at the start of November.

Tuesday's match was only Nadal's second since October, after losing to Andy Murray in Abu Dhabi on 2 Jan. Per the aforementioned source, he said:

Little things didn't quite work out for me today. This is the third comeback of my career after injury, so we will see how it goes in a couple of months. I wanted to start well, but it was not the case today.

...

Now in my mind I have to practise well and try to be ready for Australia, but I know it can happen that I will go there and lose. Perhaps I will win a couple of matches there, I don't know.

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Nadal also took to Twitter after the match: 

Rafa Nadal @RafaelNadal

Yesterday it wasn’t meant to be, now doubles with @picomonaco in Doha and on Sunday I’ll travel to Melbourne to prepare the #ausopen

With the 14-time Grand Slam-winner planning to travel to Melbourne in preparation for the tournament, this would suggest, barring any further setbacks with his fitness, Nadal will probably make an appearance.

As he alluded in his post-match comments, he may not be able to perform near his usual standard, though. 

In the first set, Nadal showed flashes of brilliance that will keep alive hopes he will return to his magnificent best. This trademark forehand was a particular highlight:

His lack of fitness seemed to take its toll as the match wore on. This allowed 34-year-old Berrer, who has announced he will retire at the end of this year, to regain a foothold in the game. Berrer broke the world No. 3 early in the second set to lead 3-1 and in the first game of the final set as he ultimately overcame the beleaguered Nadal.

Naila-Jean Meyers of The New York Times echoed this sentiment with a dash of humour thrown in for good measure:

Naila-Jean Meyers @NailaJeanMeyers

Key question for 2015 tennis season: Was Nadal's appendix the source of his success?

The match could have swung Nadal's way in the final game. The Mallorca-born star had three break points, but failed to make it 5-5 in the deciding set. 

Luckily for Nadal, his injury-hit 2014 has not impacted upon his world ranking.

With the seedings taken directly from the ATP world rankings, Nadal will be seeded third as he is significantly behind Roger Federer, but likewise ahead of last year's champion Stanislas Wawrinka.

This will benefit the Spaniard greatly as he will not face anyone in the top 24 until at least Round 4.

However, based on the defeat to Berrer, this may not be enough to see Nadal go any distance in the tournament.

It's well-known that a large part of Nadal's game is based around his incredible athleticism, as his rally against Novak Djokovic in the 2012 Australian Open Final shows:

As Nadal mentioned, with the types of injuries he has suffered, it could take several months and a lot more time on court before he is back to full fitness. 

With the Australian Open less than two weeks away, Nadal has little time to work on regaining his athletic edge. If he's struggling now against a player who had never before beaten anyone ranked in the top five, he's unlikely to make a significant impact on the tournament.

AFP reports that late on in the game, Berrer found attacking the net to be a useful strategy as Nadal was unable to muster his famously powerful passing shots. With Grand Slam matches potentially going to five sets, Nadal's ability to go the distance and maintain his high level of play is a serious concern.

If he features at all, Nadal could be set for his earliest Australian exit since he crashed out in the third round in 2004.

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