#360view: Rafa Nadal faces mental battle

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Rafael Nadal faces a difficult transition period after regaining fitness.

For a player who is both admired and envied by athletes worldwide for being one of the mentally toughest out there, it is unsettling to hear Rafael Nadal admit to being overcome by nerves.

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The world No3 suffered his earliest Miami exit in nine years when he fell to Fernando Verdasco in the third round on Sunday and the Spaniard confessed that it was due to his inability to relax on court.

Granted, Verdasco played some great tennis for large stints of the match but Nadal misfired so many times, netting easy volleys, mis-hitting numerous balls and committing an uncharacteristic 32 unforced errors.

There was a sense of hesitancy in Nadal’s shots and that lack of conviction allowed Verdasco to post just his second career victory over his countryman in 15 meetings. You know something is definitely wrong when Nadal hits a mere nine forehand winners in a three-set match.

But the 14-time grand slam champion isn’t blaming his shaky performance on lack of form. He is no longer referring to his injury and health troubles from last season as an excuse for rustiness, nor is he lacking match play like the start of the season. In his own words, this loss was about anxiety more than anything else.

The 28-year-old says he’s been used to keeping his emotions under control in “95 per cent” of his matches yet somehow he currently finds himself unable to maintain that calmness.

“I was playing with too much nerves. I was anxious on court,” he said. While the words ‘Nadal’ and ‘nerves’ haven’t usually gone together in the past, it is not surprising the Mallorcan is experiencing such feelings on court.

Several champions have previously explained how nerves started to creep into their game as they got older and more experienced. With all the physical issues Nadal has dealt with over the past several seasons, it’s only natural that his outlook has changed.

It must have been easier for him to be bold and fearless when he was 19 and winning the French Open on debut. But now, when he’s seen both sides of the spectrum – the thrill of dominance and agony of injury, constantly oscillating between both, the stakes must seem much higher for Nadal each time he takes to the court.

He may be just 28, but with the masses continuously predicting an early retirement, is it getting tougher for Nadal to shut out his sceptics? A reporter asked him if he would consider hiring a sports psychologist and Nadal quickly discarded the suggestion.

“Tennis is not a big deal in life. It’s sport, a game. That’s not that much important,” he said.

For someone whose fighting ability on each and every point has resembled someone fighting for his life, it is strange to think that Nadal doesn’t think his tennis is serious enough to warrant professional help. That’s not to say he isn’t willing to solve his problems.

Nadal kicks into another gear whenever his back is against the wall. He changed his game when he needed to, improved on other surfaces, and has come back from career-threatening injuries.

In his post-match press conference on Sunday, he vowed to fix his current issue. He doesn’t know how or when, but he knows he’ll do it. History has shown that he most probably will.

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Miami Open: Verdasco stuns Nadal in 3rd Rd

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The two Spaniards shake hands after Verdasco's (r) win.

Fernando Verdasco upset second seed Rafael Nadal 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 Sunday in a third-round matchup of Spaniards to advance at the ATP and WTA Miami Open.

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Nadal, a four-time Miami runner-up, leaves the Masters Series hardcourt event without a title again this year after his 11th appearance.

Verdasco, ranked 34th, defeated Nadal for the second time in a row after losing their first 13 meetings, although that most recent prior meeting came three years ago in Madrid.

“Obviously always beating a player like Rafa is one of the biggest victories that you can have in tennis,” Verdasco said. “It’s a huge victory and it’s always really nice to play in an almost packed stadium against one of the best players in history.”

Also advancing with victories Sunday were world number one Serena Williams and Britain’s Andy Murray.

Nadal saved a match point in the eighth game of the second set trailing 5-2, but Verdasco closed out the shocker a game later with a return winner.

The 14-time grand slam champion said after the defeat that his formerly untouchable game needs work and the mental side may now be his weak link.

“I need to fix again the nerves, the self control on court. It’s not a tough issue to fix. I’m going to keep trying,” Nadal said. “I’m practicing with the right attitude, I think. I’m arriving in an important part of the season for me (clay). I didn’t want arrive to that part of the season with that loss of today, obviously, but that part of the season will arrive.”

Murray won his 499th career match, downing Colombian Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 6-4 to reach the fourth round. The 27-year-old Scotsman, winner of the title in 2009 and 2013, would become the ninth active player to reach 500 victories if he wins his next match against South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, who eliminated Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer 6-4, 6-4.

“I obviously want to try and win more, and hopefully still have quite a few years ahead of me left to add to that number. It’s a lot of wins. It’s not easy these days to win that many matches, so that’s a good sign,” said Murray.

In women’s play, Williams crushed a teen less than half her age, defeating American Catherine Bellis 6-1, 6-1. The 15-year-old challenger was no match for the 33-year-old Williams, a 19-time Grand Slam champion bidding for a record eighth trophy here.

Bellis, the junior world number one, found herself in a major test against the game’s current dominator in her first WTA appearance since the US Open.

World number one Williams is competing in Miami for the 15th time since debuting as a teenager herself in 1998, a year before Bellis was born.

Williams will next face Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, a winner over German 13th seed Angelique Kerber 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

Aiming for a third consecutive Miami title, Williams stretched her win streak to 14 matches at Crandon Park. Her career Miami record now stands at 69-7.

Williams wrapped up the affair in 41 minutes with 15 winners and five breaks of the prodigy’s serve. Bellis committed 21 unforced errors.

“If you break down her age and her ability and how well I think she handled the moment and how well she played, I think it was good,” Williams said.

Third seed Simona Halep defeated Italy’s Camila Giorgi 6-4, 7-5 to continue the momentum she took from last week’s title at Indian Wells.

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Miami Open: Novak Djokovic overcomes wobble, Serena Williams cruises into third round

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Novak Djokovic celebrates after victory in his match against Martin Klizan.

Defending champions Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams launched their Miami Open repeat bids in constrasting style on Saturday, Djokovic battling past Martin Klizan as Williams cruised into the third round.

Djokovic, the top seed who is looking for a fifth Miami Masters crown, had to work for his 6-0, 5-7, 6-1 second-round victory over Slovakia's Klizan.

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The world number one, who beat Roger Federer last weekend for the Indian Wells crown in California, is hoping to duplicate his North American March hardcourt title double of last year.

In fact, the Serb is bidding to become the first man to complete the sweep three times.

He looked well on his way to a quick win when he snapped up the opening set against his 41st-ranked opponent in 23 minutes.

He won the first seven games before Klizan got onto the scoreboard and appeared set to serve out a quick victory with a 5-3 lead in the second.

Steve Darcis of Belgium plays a forehand en route to victory over Gilles Muller.

But he dropped his serve and Klizan went on to win the second set before Djokovic re-established control and earned the victory after one hour, 56 minutes.

Djokovic next plays Belgian qualifier Steve Darcis, a 6-4, 6-7 (2/7), 6-3 winner over Gilles Muller.

Women's world number one Williams had little trouble in a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Monica Niculescu.

The 33-year-old American, who had a much harder time getting past the Romanian spin-merchant in her Indian Wells opener, showed no sign of the knee injury that forced her to forfeit her quarter-final in California last week.

Williams next faces 15-year-old compatriot Catherine "CiCi" Bellis.

Bellis advanced with a 6-2, 6-1 win over 29th-seeded Zarina Diyas on Friday.

In other men's matches, Japanese fourth seed Kei Nishikori defeated Russian Mikhail Youzhny 6-2, 6-1.

Canadian fifth seed Milos Raonic beat Teimuraz Gabashvili 6-1, 6-4 while Spanish sixth seed David Ferrer beat Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-1, 6-1.

French 11th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga celebrated his return from a lingering arm injury with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over American Tim Smyczek.

While Williams looked sharp in her second-round match postponed from Friday by rain, sixth-seeded Canadian Eugenie Bouchard fell at the first hurdle, beaten 6-0, 7-6 (7/4) by German qualifier Tatjana Maria.

In women's third-round play, fourth-seeded Dane Caroline Wozniacki, Russian eighth-seed Ekaterina Makarova and ninth-seeded German Andrea Petkovic all advanced.

Venus Williams also booked a fourth-round berth, with a 6-4, 7-6 (7/3) victory over Australian Samantha Stosur.

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