Rafael Nadal struggled with his timing and normally potent shot-making as he started his delayed preparations for the Australian Open with an error-filled 6-4, 7-5 loss to Richard Gasquet in the Kooyong Classic exhibition event Tuesday. Nadal's readiness for the first Grand Slam of the year had been in doubt after the top-ranked Spaniard pulled out of an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and a tournament in Brisbane to start the season, citing his lack of preparation following an injury layoff at the end of 2017.
Nadal didn't appear to be hindered by the lingering right knee injury that forced him to withdraw from the ATP Finals in November, but his uneven performance will likely lead to other questions about his match form heading into the Australian Open next week.
"It was a long year last year, so I had to start the preparation (for this season) a little bit later than usual. But here I arrive in plenty of time and it's a good day to start feeling again ... of playing a match," Nadal said in an on-court interview following the match.
"It's still a good test for me and a good practice and that's the most important thing."
He downplayed any concerns about his knee, saying, "If I'm not feeling good, probably I will not be here. So that's the good news."
Nadal had particular trouble with his forehand on Tuesday, repeatedly misfiring into the net or spraying his shots several feet beyond the baseline.
After Gasquet broke Nadal twice to take a 3-0 lead in the second set, however, the Spaniard suddenly began hitting the lines and playing with his usual intensity, fighting back to level the match at 3-all.
His concentration then appeared to dip again as he made several more unforced errors to drop serve to go down 6-5. Gasquet, who has never beaten Nadal in 15 competitive matches on the ATP Tour, then served out the match.
The Australian Open has already been hit by the withdrawal of three-time major winner Andy Murray, who has been sidelined by a hip injury since Wimbledon last year and underwent surgery on Monday in Melbourne after pulling out of the tournament.
Japanese star Kei Nishikori has also withdrawn with a wrist injury and Serena Williams pulled out after saying she wasn't ready to defend her title following the birth of her daughter in September.
Novak Djokovic is also working his way back into top shape after sitting out the second half of 2017 with an elbow injury. He also withdrew from the Abu Dhabi exhibition event and Qatar Open at the start of the season, but was a late entry to the Kooyong Classic. He plays his first match since Wimbledon against No. 5 Dominic Thiem on Wednesday.
Nadal, who enjoyed a resurgent 2017 after losing in last year's Australian Open final to Roger Federer, said despite the rustiness at Kooyong, he still believes he'll be ready to compete at Melbourne Park next week.
"My idea is just to keep practicing hard the next couple of days to be ready for the beginning of the Australian Open," he said.