JPlayers love Melbourne and the Australian Open. Officials treat them well. Fans are tennis savvy and ardent supporters of a game dear to their hearts. So when three of the top-ten seeds lose in their opening round, a puff of sadness hangs over the grounds.
Such was the case Tuesday.
Rafael Nadal (No. 5) lost confidence and momentum from the first set onward against his lefty Spanish rival, Fernando Verdasco, losing 7-6(6) 4-6 3-6 7-6(4) 6-2. This loss was the earliest for Nadal in the 12 years he’s competed at this major.
Simona Halep (No. 2) lost to Qualifier Shuai Zhang, 6-4 6-3. The win was her first main draw victory at any major in 15 attempts. She had invited her parents to Melbourne, thinking this match might be her swan song. But she played her best tennis. In her on-court interview Zhang was overwhelmed with emotion and unable to talk for several minutes. “I think today is [the] best moment in my tennis career,” Zhang told fans inside Margaret Court Arena. “Especially against top ten player.”
At thirty-five Venus Williams, the paragon of women’s tennis, fought hard for her WTA Comeback Player of the Year award in 2015. She’d cracked the top-ten for the first time in years and got a number-eight seed in Melbourne. Yet a bum thigh and shaky start against Johanna Konta of Great Britain, in her first appearance at the Australian Open, wasn’t what Williams had hoped for in her loss, 6-4 6-2. Venus was so distraught she skipped her mandatory press conference, which could bring a fine of up to $20,000.
All three will be missed, as the tournament progresses. But Nadal’s loss will reinforce the the locker-room buzz: he’s vulnerable and beatable. It will also put his Big Four status on shaky ground.
“The game is changing a little bit,” Nadal mused when asked about the opponents’ aggression against him now. “Everybody now tries to hit all the balls. There is no balls that you can prepare the point, no? Everybody hit the ball hard and try to go for the winners in any position. [The] game become a little bit more crazy in this aspect.”
Nadal described his ‘mission’ as trying to ‘make them play with difficult positions.’ Putting opponents in those spots helped secure success for Nadal. But he couldn’t execute Tuesday.
“If I let them hit from good positions and they obviously want to go for winners, then the chances for success are much higher,” Nadal explained. “So that’s the mistake for me today. I was not enough aggressive with my forehand, during the whole match. I didn’t feel it. I tried. I fighter. I was ready to do it, and I didn’t. So I am sad for that.”
Verdasco now has three wins over his compatriot: Madrid (2012), Miami (2015), and Melbourne (2016). Last year, Nadal was knocked out of Wimbledon in the second round by German Dustin Brown who, at the time, was ranked outside the top 100. In Cincinnati, Nadal lost to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, another lefty Nadal had dominated throughout his 15-year career. In the third round of the U. S. Open Rafa came up short against Fabio Fognini, as well. The spunky Italian had also defeated Nadal on clay at the Rio Open and in the quarterfinals of Barcelona, a tournament Nadal had won eight times.
His return to Melbourne this year was not like his return in 2015, when he’d come off months of knee rehabilitation. By his own account this year, he felt good in practice and had finished well in warm-up tournaments.
“Obviously is tough [loss], especially because is not like last year that I arrived here playing bad and feeling myself not ready for it,” Nadal said in his post-match press conference. “This year was a completely different story. I have been playing and practicing great and working so much. You know, is tough when you work so much and arrives a very important event and you’re going out too early.”
On a high note, two-time women’s champion (2012, 2013) Victoria Azarenka did what no player had ever done at a this major. She bageled her opponent, Alison Van Uytvanck, 6-0 6-0. The Belgium native was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year.
“I really wasn’t focused on the score,” Azarenka told the press. “The outcome, when you finish the match, is pretty remarkable. But what I was really happy is that I was able to sustain that for 12 games and didn’t lose my focus for any point.”