Rafael Nadal loss in Doha opens door for debutant Novak Djokovic

Rafael Nadal suffers a surprise three set defeat by Michael Berrer in round one of the Qatar Open

Doha, host of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, has always drawn big names to this jewel of a venue on the Persian Gulf.

But its amethyst courts are not the only gem-like attractions. The prize money on offer is more than twice that of its fellow Australian Open warm-ups in Brisbane and Chennai—a cool £1.2 million. It is just a hop, skip and a jump from Dubai, where many players have over-wintered. And it boasts reliable warm, dry weather—unlike piping hot and showery Brisbane and Chennai or blazing Perth—host to this week’s Hopman Cup.

No surprise, then, that Doha has been the opening tournament of choice for former champions such as Roger Federer—three times a winner—and Andy Murray—twice victorious. It has also been the first choice of Rafael Nadal in five of the last six years, and he finally won it last year—his only main-tour title before the Australian Open.

But for the world No1 Novak Djokovic, Doha is a new venture: Indeed his Qatar debut marks only his third appearance in a ranking event before the Australian Open. He won in Adelaide in 2007 but lost in the first round of Brisbane in 2009.

The reason for this change of tactic was therefore of special interest ahead Doha. Perhaps it was with an eye to the chasing pack of young—and some not-so-young—players. He told the AFP: “I think a wider and larger group of players is able to get to the top. You have new faces coming up that can challenge, who can win against the best players in the biggest tournaments like Cilic, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic, and Dimitrov.

“I sat down with the team and we considered the schedule… I had so many matches in seasons before that I was able to satisfy my needs on court with a couple of matches in Abu Dhabi or the Hopman Cup and then go to Melbourne. This year was different because we thought the gap between the last match in London and the first in Melbourne was too big and I needed to play an official tournament.”

Perhaps, too, he was aiming to maintain an edge over his close rivals. Federer came within a couple of games of chasing down Djokovic at the end of 2014, and the world No2 is playing in Brisbane this week. As for Nadal, the world No3 enjoyed plenty of success in the first half of 2014 but injury and illness blighted the second half. Based on experience, opponents are only too aware of how strongly Nadal can bounce back from adversity: witness 2013.

Djokovic continued: “Rafa didn’t play many matches in last four or five months. He had similar issues with injuries few years back, and then he came back in 2013 and played maybe the year of his life.

“Roger also didn’t experience a season up to his standards [in 2013] but then we were fighting up to the last couple of matches in London for the No1 spot. So these two guys are still among the main candidates to win every Grand Slam. And Andy is right up there, and then you have [Tomas] Berdych and [David] Ferrer, guys who have been very consistent.”

And as it happened, Berdych and Ferrer brought the tally of top-10 players in the Doha draw to four, backed up by former champion Richard Gasquet and three more top-30 players.

However, until a few days ago, it looked as though Djokovic’s long-awaited appearance in Doha may not happen at all. He pulled out of the final of an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last week after picking up a fever, handing the title to Murray. The Serb admitted he would make his decision after playing his opening doubles match.

But that went well, and he took to court against fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic in truly impressive style. Djokovic was lightning quick in both attack and defence, cranked up 26 winners, made 14 points out of 19 at the net, and raced to the second round, 6-2, 6-1, in 59 minutes.

He was afterwards in fine spirits, albeit with a husky voice: “It feels good, better than I thought two days ago. Wasn’t sure if I was gonna play in this tournament, so I’m really glad that I came to Doha for the first time.”

He wrapped up with an over-the-top imitation of the American MC, and waved farewell. He will next play Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Nadal, then, knew what he had to do. The Spaniard, after his months away from the tour, had taken a while to knock the rust from his game in Abu Dhabi, going down to Murray with ease, but here, he hit the ground running in old-fashioned Rafa style, pounding his hapless qualifier opponent, Michael Berrer, to a 6-1 first set, 31 points to 17.

But suddenly the tables turned. The 34-year-old German had Nadal at sixes and sevens with sliced short balls, angled wide balls wide, and some superb serving. Berrer broke, held to take the second set, and broke at the start of the third, 3-1.

Nadal looked flustered, his game ragged, and the errors piled up. Berrer played the uninhibited tennis of a man in his last season—he confirmed afterwards that this is his last year on the tour—and survived two double faults and three break points in serving out the set for his first top-five victory, 6-4.

Certainly Nadal blew hot and cold, a sure sign of lack of match-play, but his fans will be reassured by how fit, strong and determined he looked. It is worth remembering that he has rarely had great success in these first weeks of the year, yet he has not fallen short of the quarters in Australia since 2005—and has a title and two runners-up trophies from Melbourne to his name.

Nadal’s loss opens up the draw for Berdych, however, who looked particularly sharp in beating Denis Istomin, 6-1, 6-4.

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