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

The Spaniard competed in last week’s exhibition event inAbu Dhabi, where the rustiness after his lack of matchplay since October wasevident also, as Britain’s Andy Murray breezed past him in straight sets and Nadalwas unable to gain a foothold in the match.

He had looked far more like his oldself 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 fewproblems against his 127th ranked opponent, but failed to maintainthe momentum he had gained by comfortably taking the first set 6-1. Sensingvulnerability in the multiple Grand Slam winner, Berrer came through to takethe next two sets and the match, 6-3 6-4 in a shade under two hours. He had to withstanda late challenge at the end as Nadal summoned one final effort to break hisserve, when trying to close the game out, but the German withstood two breakpoints to serve out.

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

Berrer for his part was clearly more at home in the Dohaevent after winning through three previous qualifying rounds to make the firstround proper. He does have the capabilities to trouble the higher rankedplayers, with two previous victories over players who were ranked in the topten at the time, although the last such success was five years ago against TomasBerdych.

As this is planned to be his final year on the tour, at the grand oldage of 34, he seems to be playing with greater freedom at present and may beone to watch out for in the season ahead.

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

Of the other contenders for the Australian Open, Switzerland’sworld number four Stan Wawrinka is into the third round at the Chennai Open, witha 6-1 6-4 victory over Croatian Borna Coric. He seems to be playing well as heseeks to defend the Grand Slam title he claimed last year.

Roger Federercontinues 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 witha persistent arm injury that has troubled him for the last month.