Commentary

Rafael Nadal can't overcome cobwebs

Originally Published: August 11, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Andy Murray's quick exit from the Rogers Cup on Tuesday showed how tricky it can be to work off the rust after a five-week break following Wimbledon. On Wednesday, the top three in the world rankings made their returns, and here's how they looked:

No. 2 Rafael Nadal: His first test of the foot
Looks: rusty

Nadal was the only member of the trio to start quickly, but he didn't finish that way, going three hours and three sets against Ivan Dodig before finally getting edged out 1-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5).

The Spaniard arrived in Montreal with only a week of practice after having to rest the foot he injured at Wimbledon, and while he reported that the foot held up fine, the lingering rust showed as the match grew closer. Physically, Nadal looked sharp as he took a 6-1, 3-1 lead, but he struggled to clear the cobwebs mentally, blowing lead after lead. After letting the second set slip away, Nadal went up 3-0 lead in the third and served for the match at 5-3, and in the deciding tiebreaker he was up 5-4. Two rain breaks didn't help, but the biggest challenge was Dodig's solid serving and refusal to be put away.

"Maybe I think for sure he didn't play his best tennis," said the Croatian, semi-decisively. "But I use maybe his bad day, and for me it's fine."

Dodig went sprawling after he chased one of Nadal's forehands at 4-4 in the tiebreaker, but picked himself up and crunched a clean backhand winner on match point to grab the biggest win of his career in front of a packed stadium.

"You are winning without many problems, you have one mistake, and after the opponent start to serve very well, play very aggressive," Nadal said afterward. "I was serving very well at the beginning of the match, and after my serve was worst."

It would not have mattered much if he had eked out a win and gotten another opportunity to work off the rust. But all of a sudden there is much less room for error. Nadal will not be able to get any more match play this week, particularly since he has also exited the doubles, and now has only Cincinnati to work out the kinks before the U.S. Open. The near-miss also adds to what has been a season of near-misses.

"This year is been fantastic year for me with tough moments," Nadal said. "Today probably is a tough one. But worst when you lose five finals. I lost five finals this year."

The foot may have passed the test, but the search for a psychological boost continues.

No. 3 Roger Federer: First match as a 30-year-old
Looks: rested

"I'm still able to move," Roger Federer reported after his first outing as an official senior citizen of the men's tour.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesNot a bad start for the tour's newest "senior citizen," Roger Federer, who won his first match as a 30-year-old.

Not surprisingly, he showed a little rust early but finished the match in high gear, winning 7-5, 6-3 against tall, big-serving Canadian Vasek Pospisil (yes, there's more to Canadian tennis than Milos Raonic). Pospisil hung in with his self-confessed idol until the first set was tied 5-5, but a few lapses handed the set to Federer. Then Pospisil missed an easy overhead when he was up 40-0 in his first service game of the second set and got broken. After that, Federer was off and running, with drop-shot winners on the hard court to close out consecutive service games. That's a sure sign of comfort.

"He had a tough 10 minutes," said Federer of the sudden turn in the middle of the match. "I think this is where I was better than him today. I wasn't better otherwise. So it was a good match for me to win without playing my very best."

But he'll have to be the one guarding against lapses in his next match. Federer has let big leads slip in his past two matches against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, losing after being up two sets in the Wimbledon quarterfinal and after holding a 5-1 lead in the third set in Montreal two years ago.

"I will not think about that Wimbledon match as much as I might think about the match we had here two years ago," Federer said. "Again, that doesn't happen often to me. So these two matches were strange matches. I'm still trying to find my game. Also here, the balls are faster than in Wimbledon. They are tough to control. We'll wait and see. I think it's going to be a different match."

Winning the big rematch would let Federer put the Wimbledon defeat behind him, but a loss would keep the hangover going longer. Still, Wednesday's match at least showed that his game hasn't aged much since then.

No. 1 Novak Djokovic: First match as the ATP world No. 1 player
Looks: rested

Djokovic said he didn't feel any different walking on court, and he's not going to change anything now that he's No. 1, either. And with a 48-1 record for the year coming into this event, why would he?

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic started poorly before winning his first match as a world No. 1.

But whether he changes anything, things do change when you become the guy at the top, and Djokovic knows it.

"You carry a lot of responsibility when you are playing and when you are off the court," he said. "You represent not just yourself but the game of tennis in general. You need to handle yourself well. It carries a little bit more weight on your shoulders. I don't want to think about negatives and worry about things that might happen because I have become No. 1: Will I keep it long enough? Will it come to my head? Will I struggle with emotions?"

The first few games of Djokovic's reign at No. 1 didn't begin all that well. In the first set, he was broken twice and fell behind 4-1, and then he faced a set point for opponent Nikolay Davydenko, who is far from his former days as No. 3 but can still be a tricky opponent at times.

"He's a really strange player who I think the tougher the ball is, it's easier for him to play," Djokovic said.

But like Federer, Djokovic didn't look back after finally getting the lead, going through 7-5, 6-1. Next up is Marin Cilic, who scuppered the anticipated third-round meeting between Djokovic and Juan del Potro. Although it's too early to tell if Djokovic can keep up the remarkable resiliency he showed in the first half of the season, he certainly hasn't collapsed since the break and remains on course to put together one of the best win-loss seasons in history.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.