By Steve Gorten
KEY BISCAYNE – Once again, Rafael Nadal will leave the Miami Open without a title.
The world’s third-ranked men’s player and four-time tournament runner-up was ousted by fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 on stadium court Sunday, falling short for the 11th time here at Crandon Park Tennis Center.
The Miami Open is the only tournament Nadal hasn’t won with this many attempts.
“He played well in the third [set] so he deserved to win more than me without any doubt tonight,” Nadal said. “Just congratulate him for the victory.”
Said Verdasco, ranked 34th in the world: “Obviously, always, beating a guy like Rafa is the same like if you beat [Andy] Murray or [Roger] Federer. It is one of the biggest victories you can have in tennis. …At the end, you just try to enjoy the moment also – not even winning or losing.”
More concerning than the loss for Nadal is that he departs Crandon Park Tennis Center in a psychological funk — unsure not of his game, but rather his mindset in matches.
“It’s not the question of tennis,” he noted. “The thing is the question of being relaxed enough to play well on court. One month, or one month and a half ago, I didn’t have my game. My game in general has improved since a month and a half.
“At the same time, I’m still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing with a little bit of anxious[ness].”
Nadal continued, expounding candidly about his troubles. He said he has been able to control his emotions for “90, 95 percent of my matches of my career,” but on Sunday, it was “tougher to be under self-control.”
“But I’m gonna fix it,” he promised. “I don’t know if in one week, in six months, or in one year, but I’m gonna do it.”
Nadal missed time last year because of various injuries, but said his physical problems are in the past, and added that he’s “talked enough about these kinds of things. It’s a different story today.”
Nadal, 28, opened this season with a first-round loss to Michael Berrer at Doha, and then lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. He suffered his first semifinal loss on clay in 12 years – a 52-match streak – in a semifinal loss to Fabio Fognini at Rio de Janeiro.
After winning Buenos Aires, Nadal lost in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells, falling in three sets to Milos Raonic. Sunday’s loss to Verdasco was his second in a row to him after winning their first 13 matchups. In their most recent meeting before the Miami Open, in 2012 on the clay at Madrid, Verdasco prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 7-5.
“I’m feeling more tired than usual, feeling that I don’t have this self-confidence that when I hit the ball, I’m gonna hit the ball where I want to hit the ball, to go for the ball running and knowing that my position will be the right one. All these are small things that are difficult to explain.”
Added Nadal: “I am practicing with the right attitude, I think. I arrive at an important part of the season for me. I didn’t want to arrive at that part of the season with a loss, obviously, but that part of the season arrives.”
Nadal said problems with nerves and self-control began at the beginning of the year. He added that while he’s always been able to snap out of slumps in a short time – one or two points – struggles now affect him for extended stretches.
“For example, 3-all, break point, more or less an easy forehand. That was an important point for me, but it shouldn’t be that important,” Nadal said. “I lost that point, and then it affects me the next game. I am playing the next game with more nerves. Then I had the break back, 30-love, and again I miss a forehand. That created me doubts again.
“So a little bit on and off too much. That’s something that didn’t happen in the past.”
“I’m trying to be honest. I am saying the things that I feel today,” he said. “But at the same time, I tell you that I have been able to change a lot of negative situations in my career. I want to do it again. I’m gonna work to do it again. I am confident that I can do it. I don’t know if I’m gonna do it, but I hope I can.”
Nadal was asked if he has ever considered seeking the help of a sports psychologist. No, he said.
“Seriously, I’ve said a lot of times in my career that tennis is not a big deal in life,” he said, smiling. “Sport is game. That’s not that much important.”
Added Nadal: “Nobody’s gonna change the situation for you. You have to know that you have a problem and you have to know that you have to improve that. You have to change that.”
While Nadal must deal with that, Verdasco will try to continue his best run at the Miami Open since 2010. A two-time quarterfinalist at the tournament, Verdasco had lost his past three matches here prior to this year’s run.
He went into Sunday’s match 18-77 all-time against top-10 opponents. His last top-10 win came at Indian Wells last year against No. 9 Richard Gasquet.
Leading 5-2, Verdasco failed to convert a match-point opportunity. He capitalized on his second chance the next game.
“I need to enjoy it much, but experience has told me already when you have a victory like this one, you need to be very careful,” Verdasco said. “You need to still stay focused on the tournament. …Friends are asking all the time, ‘Are you going to celebrate?’ I say, ‘Not yet. If I go to celebrate today and tomorrow, then the next day I’m going to lose for sure.”