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Rafael Nadal shows more vulnerability in Aussie loss

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Verdasco: I just started hitting winners, I don't know how (2:05)

Fernando Verdasco talks about how he was able to mount a comeback and take down Rafael Nadal in the first round at the Australian Open. (2:05)

"I know I did everything that I can to be ready for it. It was not my day. Let's keep going. That's the only thing. No, no, there is no more things to do than keep practicing hard, keep practicing the same way that I was doing the last four, five months."

-- Rafael Nadal, following his five-set, first-round loss against Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open


You could almost see this one coming, from the moment they made the draw and Nadal found himself facing another volatile shot-maker, another Fabio Fognini (who blasted a slumping Nadal out of the previous Grand Slam, the US Open). Only this time, it was an opponent with whom Nadal had an even more memorable history, Fernando Verdasco.

Verdasco is a 6-foot-2, 32-year-old fellow Spaniard, and, just to make things more complicated, a lefty just like Nadal. Verdasco hits crazy big and misses a lot, except when he doesn't, which was the case back on that unforgettable day in 2009 when he and Nadal played one of the best matches of the Open era on the same court in Melbourne Park.

Nadal won that epic match and went on to complete his career Grand Slam after a day's rest. He was arguably at the absolute zenith of his career.

This was a different Rafa on Tuesday. This was the same Verdasco.

Which is why, with just the slightly better court position afforded by a slightly less menacing Nadal, Verdasco was able to tee off even more freely than last time. That has been the biggest change in metrics of Nadal versus anyone these days -- he appears to have lost his ability to swarm and overwhelm opponents.

Last year, the dialogue was largely about Nadal's confidence. He was trying to rebuild his surety after missing much of the fall of 2014. That labor was painful, frequently etched on Nadal's face in a year when his eyebrows seemed permanently arched.

This year was supposed to be different given the positive strides he appeared to take this past fall. His results improved, and he rebuilt his ranking to finish the year at No. 5. Nadal made the final in his first event of 2016 and felt confident as the Australian Open approached. Then he drew Verdasco.

Nadal was getting thrown into the fire. Still, he thought he was ready.

"This year was a completely different story," Nadal told the press after Verdasco hit 90 winners to win in 4 hours, 41 minutes. "I have been playing and practicing great and working so much. You know, it is tough when you work so much and arrive at a very important event and you're going out too early."

The confidence battle that played such a prominent role in Nadal's fortunes last year seems to have evaporated, but there appears to be a more tangible, practical issue now.

"I was competitive," Nadal said of his effort against Verdasco. "[But] in terms of creating damage to the opponent with my forehand, I didn't. So I was hitting forehands, and he was able to keep hitting winners -- to keep going for big shots in a not-very-bad position."

Nadal appears to have a compound problem. He has squandered a significant amount of his once-immense mystique and, for complex reasons, his forehand is no longer the weapon it once was. In fairness, he can still lay the hammer down on most ATP players. But the elite competitors and the shot-makers who get on a roll, as Verdasco did Tuesday, have become a problem.

"[I] don't want to compare to last year, because last year was a different issue," Nadal said. "But this year, the real thing is, I was not aggressive enough with my forehand during the whole match. I didn't feel it. I tried. I [fought]. I was ready to do it, and I didn't. So I am sad for that."

You look at Nadal now, and you wonder if maybe the wrong guy (Stan Wawrinka) got that tattoo quoting playwright Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."