Rafael Nadal no longer untouchable after shock Goffin loss at ATP Cup

Rafael Nadal (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images) /

Rafael Nadal has not been at his brilliant best at the ATP Cup, giving his rivals hope he can finally be challenged after a remarkable run of results.

For the first time in six months, Rafael Nadal does not look untouchable at the top of men’s tennis.

Nadal lost his first match of 2020 in straight sets to David Goffin on Friday, only the second time he had lost to the battling Belgian in an illustrious career.

Goffin triumphed 6-4 7-6 (7-3) in two hours and 23 minutes as the world number one struggled in the stifling Sydney heat.

Since his Wimbledon semifinal defeat to Roger Federer, 19-time time major winner Nadal had only lost one match, showing exceptional consistency.

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That loss was against Alexander Zverev at the ATP Finals and despite going out in the group stage in London, he was unfortunate to do so after recovering to win his next two matches against one of the most improved players of last season, Daniil Medvedev, and eventual winner Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Aside from that, he had won the US Open, tasted victory in the Rogers Cup and come out on top in all eight of his rubbers across singles and doubles as Spain claimed the Davis Cup on home soil, not to mention victory in three Paris Masters contests before having to withdraw from that event.

A fine showing at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in preseason ensured Nadal remained the form player in world tennis coming into the new campaign, despite increased pressure from the youngster stars outside the Big Three.

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But this week has not gone as expected.

Nadal acknowledged he was rusty and error-prone in beating Nikoloz Basilashvili against Georgia. He bounced back against an easier opponent in Pablo Cuevas, but then looked extremely poor despite victory against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka.

The Spaniard made 36 unforced errors and explained he had struggled to cope playing in the heat and humidity of a day session for the first time this week.

Rafael Nadal has not enjoyed Australia as much as the other Grand Slam venues over the years, winning the Melbourne major just once way back in 2009.

As well as being short of his best form against an inspired Goffin, Nadal used sawdust and ice towels during the loss as he struggled to cool down.

And two-time Australian Open winner Jim Courier thinks he is looking “vulnerable” (h/t Express Sport).

"Courier said of Rafael Nadal: “The humidity is a third party to what is going on. It is definitely affecting Nadal. You don’t often see Nadal go to the sawdust.“In Paris in recent years, when it has been humid, he has used tape on his wrists to keep his wristbands from sliding because of perspiring.“He is just one of those guys that sweats more than most and as a result, he suffers more than most in these conditions.“He is as fit as they come. We’ve seen him play six hours and still be standing in an Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic.“But he is vulnerable. He has a history of struggling in hot and humid conditions. He can get body cramps and get dehydrated.“He will be a little bit mindful and a little bit concerned. But the one thing he doesn’t do is back off of his energy output within the points.”"

Nadal still bounced back to see Spain through, as he and Pablo Carreno Busta edged a dramatic match tie-break 10-7 in the decisive doubles against Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen, after Roberto Bautista Agut had earlier swept Kimmer Coppejans aside.

He will lead Spain in the semifinals against Australia, while Novak Djokovic, after a battling win over Denis Shapovalov that was settled by a final-set tie-break as his country got the better of Canada, will take on an in-form Russia outfit led by Medvedev.

But Nadal’s signs of weakness this week will come as a great comfort to the other Australian Open contenders, particularly holder and favorite Djokovic, along with Medvedev, who has continued his hard-court momentum.

Nadal could still go on to lead Spain to ATP Cup glory. It is quite conceivable he sweeps the impressive Alex de Minaur or Nick Kyrgios aside against Australia in the semifinals before coming out on top in a blockbuster meeting with Djokovic or Medvedev in the final.

And whether he ends the week on a high like that or not, he remains one of the most likely winners of the Australian Open after incredibly finishing 2019 as year-end number one at the age of 33.

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But for the first time in half a season, the rivals of Rafael Nadal have some hope.