Rafael Nadal said at the beginning of this Australian Open that he wasn't back to his best yet and shouldn't be considered one of the favorites for the title. It turns out, he really meant it.
On Tuesday afternoon in Melbourne, Nadal saw his 17-match winning streak against Tomas Berdych come to an end when the Czech upset Nadal in a dominating 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 performance in the quarterfinals.
It's now been six years since Nadal won his first (and still only) Australian Open title, although he has been back to the final two times since.
But what's far more alarming is that in the seven tournaments that Nadal has played since he won his ninth French Open title last year, he has yet to get back to another semifinal. In fact, in that span, Nadal is a paltry 11-7 with three losses to players ranked outside the top 100 and no top-10 wins.
This run of poor form is primarily due to a barrage of injuries and illnesses that haven't stopped since last June.
After a subpar grass-court season, the 14-time major champion injured his right wrist when he was practicing for the U.S. Open Series and ended up missing three months of play, including the U.S. Open.
He came back in Asian Swing in the fall, but never did find his rhythm or comfort on the court—not only did he return to tour on indoor hard courts, by far his least favorite surface, but he also struggled with a recurring back injury and even a bout of appendicitis, which required and appendectomy.
Following Nadal's staggering return from injury back in 2013, when he made the final of his first nine events back, winning seven of them, many expected Nadal to bounce back quickly in 2015 despite the difficulties he had in late 2014. After all, Nadal has earned the right to be considered a threat for the title whenever he steps onto the court.
However, the Australian Open is a far cry from the small clay-court tournaments he played to get himself back into match shape two years ago. This particular comeback will require more patience.
Nadal showed positive signs of life throughout the fortnight in Oz, beginning the tournament with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 destruction of former top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny. He then fought off both illness and cramping to survive a big scare from American Tim Smyczek in the second round, eventually prevailing 6-2, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 7-5.
The Spaniard looked a bit more like his old self in a 6-1, 6-0, 7-5 victory over Dudi Sela in the third round, and he was particularly impressive in the straight-sets win over No. 14 Kevin Anderson in the fourth, but against No. 6 Berdych in the quarters, he looked out of sorts from the start.
A lot of that has to do with Berdych, a perennial top-10 player who often underperforms against players ranked ahead of him. On this day, Berdych thoroughly seized the moment, utilizing his phenomenal serving and aggressive tactics to take control of the match from the first point. However, during the first two sets especially, Nadal was extremely sluggish in his movements and particularly poor on serve—he only won 29 percent of his second-serve points for the match.
Nadal did compete well and conjure up some forehand magic in the third set, but by then it was too little, too late.
As Courtney Nguyen of Sports Illustrated wrote, "Asking him to win a hard court title after playing just eight matches since Wimbledon was too much of an ask even for the great Rafa Nadal."
Nadal agreed with that sentiment, choosing to take the positives from his quarterfinal run Down Under when he talked to press after his match. (Via AustralianOpen.com):
As I said when I arrived here, the process always is not easy. When you have injuries, are difficult the comebacks. There are so many examples around the world of sport that have been tough to be back. For me, I'm not an exception on that, no? I have to take the positive things. Without being at my top level of tennis I was able to be here in quarterfinals. Is not a bad result at all for me arriving here the way I arrived: only with one match, only with five matches in seven months. So taking the positive part, that's the thing that I have to take. That's just the beginning of the season, and I want to keep having chances to compete well against everybody.
We should all take a page out of Nadal's notebook and keep this particular loss in perspective. The truth is, we won't know for a while what it's indicative of.
Sure, there's a small chance that we've seen the last of Nadal's hard-court greatness, and that at 28 and with a body that is not holding up so well anymore, he's going to be as unpredictable on surfaces outside of clay that he was earlier in his career.
It's much more likely, however, that this was just another step in the comeback process, and that after Nadal has a few more chances to get tournament play and build his confidence back, he'll be just as formidable as ever, no matter what the surface. We'll just have to wait and see.
Only one thing is certain after Nadal's loss to Berdych on Tuesday: Wherever his career is going now, he's not there yet.