- Matt Wilansky, Tennis editor
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Rafael Nadal stood motionless for a moment or two deep in the second set. He looked confused and vexed, a rare sighting regarding the world's No. 1 player, especially on his oasis of clay.
And when Rafa isn't moving his feet with the vintage intensity that has been a pillar to his success, something just isn't right. Or maybe it was just that his opponent, compatriot David Ferrer, out-intensified Nadal at his own game.
Nonetheless, Nadal suffered a rare loss on clay, falling to Ferrer 7-6 (1), 6-4 in the Monte Carlo Masters quarterfinals Friday.
"I cannot be frustrated to lose a tennis match," Nadal told reporters after the match. "In the life, there is much more important things than a tennis match.
"But I am not happy with it. I feel that I have to do more than what I did today. So when you feel that you can do more, always you come back home or to the next tournament with not the best feeling. That's my feeling today."
Nadal produced a brand of tennis he's not wont to playing: sloppy. He committed an unusually high 44 errors in what was his earliest exit from Monte Carlo in 11 years. Nadal, who is an eight-time champ at the first clay Masters event of the year, had his 30-match win streak on dirt snapped. His last loss, you ask? Same venue, but that was a year ago in last season's final against Novak Djokovic.
Sounds like a confidence issue, no? Perhaps not, according to Nadal.
"Yesterday, too, I played good, with confidence," he said. "But is not that problem. "The problem is when the match became little bit more to the limit, and not answering the right way as I normally do. So that's it."
We can parse Nadal's loss as much as we want. Was it a bad day? Back issues? Knee? Confidence? Or was his opponent just too good? After all, Ferrer is a clay stalwart in his own right. But one thing is clear: Nadal has not been the same player since sweeping last season's summer run, which included wins in Montreal, Cincinnati and, of course, the US Open. And in January, Nadal suffered a surprising loss to eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final. So what gives?
"I don't know," Nadal said. "I don't know. I think after what happened, not only the loss, the pain in my back that I had; I had to do treatment after Australia, not playing for three weeks. I played in Rio. After Rio, I had to stop for 10 or 12 days again because the back still hurt me. ...
"Physical performance is in good shape. No problems about that. Just keep working to try to find the solution for next week in Barcelona. I going to try to play well in there and fight for the matches."
The good news for Nadal is that there's plenty more tennis on the schedule before the French Open, where Rafa has won a record eight times, begins. So we should have more clarity on whether his Monte Carlo malaise was an aberration of if there is something more grave is going on.
Ferrer is no slouch on clay; it's far and away his best surface. But he had dropped 17 straight matches to Nadal on dirt, which is a staggering number no matter how you slice it. It had to be a special feeling to beat the guy who has eviscerated him time and time again, including last season in the French Open final.
"Any final is more important than today," Ferrer told reporters. "Of course, important because I am in a semifinal of a Masters 1000. For me it's only one match in my career. Of course is not the most important."
Despite the long wait, Ferrer became only the fourth player to defeat Nadal multiple times on clay, joining Djokovic (three), Gaston Gaudio (three) and Roger Federer (two), according to the ATP World Tour.
Nadal's loss came a day after he notched his 300th career win on clay. And just how utterly dominant has Rafa been on dirt? His record now? An astonishing, if not near infallible, 300-22.
But like life, tennis is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately trade. After falling short, even if by narrow margins, in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami and now Monte Carlo, the four biggest tournaments of the year so far, Nadal has done little lately, if we're basing our assessment on winner's trophies.
"No frustration, no drama," Nadal said. "Just a tennis match. But at the end I prefer to win."