MADRID – Claycourt king Rafael Nadal has played down the significance of his quarter-final defeat by Austrian Dominic Thiem at the Madrid Open – a loss that ended a year-long winning streak on clay and cost him the world number one ranking.
The 31-year-old Spaniard looked unstoppable going into his Friday clash with fifth seed Thiem, having won 50 consecutive sets on the red dirt, but he was well beaten 7-5 6-3.
Coincidentally, it was Thiem who last beat Nadal on clay, at last year's Rome Masters, shortly before the Spaniard rampaged to a 10th French Open title without dropping a set.
However, Nadal quickly slapped down any notion that world number seven Thiem knows the secret of beating the greatest ever exponent of claycourt tennis.
"Well, three weeks ago I beat him 6-0 6-3. I don't know if that's a tough player or not. I don't think it's that way," Nadal, who also beat Thiem en route to the Roland Garros title last year, told reporters.
"I think it has just been a match where he was better than me, same as a few weeks ago I was better than him.
"If he beats me three times in a row, maybe we can say he reads my game and can beat me."
Nadal will now focus on next week's tournament in Rome where, should he win the title, he could reclaim the number one ranking from great rival Roger Federer who has opted to sit out the claycourt season in preparation for Wimbledon and beyond.
Not that the Mallorcan will lose any sleep over it.
"You cannot be number one when you've been not playing for five months," he said. "I think from Shanghai (last year) till Monte-Carlo, I hadn't finished a single tournament. We're talking about a lot of months that I gave up.
"This year till now I had only one or two tournaments that I had played. This is the reality of this year.
"I'm not going to keep the number one today. At the end of the year we will see what happens.
"I think I placed myself in a good position. I am three in the (ATP Race), which is the most important thing. I still have two good weeks on clay, and then I'll keep on moving forward."
Nadal ended 2017, in which he took his grand slam tally to 16 by winning the French and U.S. Open titles, with a knee injury and then had a hip problem at this year's Australian Open that forced him to quit against Marin Cilic in the last eight.
He returned to Tour action only in April, winning the Monte Carlo title for an 11th time before rolling through the draw in Barcelona for his 11th triumph there.
Despite being off-key against Thiem, he said he was now fully fit as Paris looms.
"What makes me happy is I feel fit, can compete with possibilities every single week. This is my final goal: to be happy. That's what I'm working on," he said.