“I played very badly.” “I missed easy balls.” “I felt slow and was short all the time.”
How many times has one heard Rafael Nadal mouth all that in his post match conference? And, wait, it’s the clay court season that we’re in.
For someone who chases down every ball with the speed of a panther, even on the slow red clay, and who has been hailed as the greatest clay court player of all time, Nadal suddenly doesn’t seem invincible on the surface.
His 37-match winning streak on the red dirt was ended last week by Novak Djokovic in the Madrid Open final, and the Spaniard, still probably hungover the loss, struggled against Italian qualifier Paolo Lorenzi in Wednesday’s Rome Masters opener before advancing 6-7, 6-4, 6-0.
“I played very badly,” a non-plussed Nadal told reporters. “I was anxious, I felt slow and I was short all the time. I missed easy balls. I finished the match better and in the last game I played well.
“There is a big difference between Rome and Madrid. There you are playing at altitude and the ball is quicker. Losing the final also makes it more difficult because you arrive sadder. All these facts made it tough today.”
At the end of it all, though, Nadal would’ve been a relieved man, having managed to maintain his record of never losing consecutive matches on clay.
While, Nadal flirted with a shock defeat, Novak Djokovic stretched his unbeaten run this season with a crushing 6-0, 6-3 win over Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot. Roger Federer too advanced to the next round following a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Rome champion for five of the past six years, Nadal broke Lorenzi in the sixth game, but the Italian, ranked 148th in the world, refused to be intimidated by the strangely expressionless world number one and broke back before taking the set to a tiebreak.
Lorenzi chased everything down, forcing the Nadal machine to continually splutter. He sealed the opening set to send the usually sedate Italian crowd jumping to their feet.
The carnival atmosphere was quietened as Nadal broke serve in the first game of the second set but the gutsy 29-year-old mixed his shots well and after the Spaniard took a tumble to stain his canary yellow shirt, Lorenzi broke back.
Lorenzi showed anxiety for the first time, though, at 4-4 and Nadal broke again before holding his serve to square the match.
In the deciding set, Nadal rediscovered the timing that had eluded him in the previous two to race to the finish against an exhausted opponent.
Djokovic, who will replace Nadal as world number one if he wins in Rome and the Spaniard fails to make the semifinals, claimed his 33rd win in a row to close on John McEnroe’s 42-match unbeaten start to 1984.
“It’s a great way to start as you waste little energy. He was making a lot of enforced errors and coming to the net which didn’t give me a lot of rhythm,” said Djokovic, who next faces 14th-seed Stanislas Wawrinka.