Rafael Nadal’s preparations for the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia appear to have taken another setback on the court, as his hoped for smooth progress through the rounds of the Qatar Open in Doha were left in taters at the hands of the German qualifier, Michael Berrer in the first round.

The Spaniard competed in last week’s exhibition event in Abu Dhabi, where the rustiness after his lack of matchplay since October was evident also, as Britain’s Andy Murray breezed past him in straight sets and Nadal was unable to gain a foothold in the match. He had looked far more like his old self when defeating Stan Wawrinka in the consolation match that followed on, but defeat in Doha may have been a better reflection of his current form.

Ranked three in the world, he was expected to face few problems against his 127th ranked opponent, but failed to maintain the momentum he had gained by comfortably taking the first set 6-1. Sensing vulnerability in the multiple Grand Slam winner, Berrer came through to take the next two sets and the match, 6-3 6-4 in a shade under two hours. He had to withstand a late challenge at the end as Nadal summoned one final effort to break his serve, when trying to close the game out, but the German withstood two break points to serve out.

Perhaps the expectations of the reigning champion from last season’s event were unreasonable at such an early stage on his latest comeback from injuries, after a wrist injury and a troublesome appendix towards the end of last year, but he would have at least expected to get to the later stages here. Still only 28 years of age, it would be unwise to count him out just yet for further major honours, but his body has shown signs of severe wear and tear in recent years including serious knee issues, so one wonders how many times he can come back and challenge the top players on an equal footing.

Berrer for his part was clearly more at home in the Doha event after winning through three previous qualifying rounds to make the first round proper. He does have the capabilities to trouble the higher ranked players, with two previous victories over players who were ranked in the top ten at the time, although the last such success was five years ago against Tomas Berdych. As this is planned to be his final year on the tour, at the grand old age of 34, he seems to be playing with greater freedom at present and may be one to watch out for in the season ahead.

Novak Djokovic suffered no similar problems in his first round match at the same venue, winning 6-2 6-1 against his fellow Serb, Dusan Lajovic ,and showing few signs of fatigue after having to pull out of the final in Abu Dhabi with sickness.

Of the other contenders for the Australian Open, Switzerland’s world number four Stan Wawrinka is into the third round at the Chennai Open, with a 6-1 6-4 victory over Croatian Borna Coric. He seems to be playing well as he seeks to defend the Grand Slam title he claimed last year. Roger Federer continues his preparations as world number two at the Brisbane International event, as he seeks an early title for the year.

France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked twelve in the world, has pulled out of this year’s Australian Open with a persistent arm injury that has troubled him for the last month. 
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