While it ended sooner than scheduled, Rafael Nadal’s latest return to action—don’t call it a comeback, he’s only been out since July—still lived up to expectations.

—It began with his 13th straight win over Richard Gasquet; I’m guessing Rafa could come back after 10 years away and still give Poor Richard a flogging.

—It included a delay-of-game penalty when Nadal was set-point down to Martin Klizan, thus bringing the time-violation rules back to the forefronts of our minds. (How we missed you, time-violation rules!)

—It gave Rafa a new target for his ire: The ball. There’s no more blue clay on tour, but there are still Head tennis balls in China, much to Nadal's chagrin. “The ball is so bad here,” Rafa said yesterday. “If you throw the ball on the floor, the bounce goes everywhere.”

—Yet it also featured, even with those bad balls, some vintage Rafa genius. The most memorable example was a supremely acute backhand volley winner to save a break point against Klizan. Overall, Nadal didn't play poorly in Beijing.

—But there was, as there always is with Rafa, some suffering, too. He was up-and-down from the baseline, struggled on break points, won a low percentage of second-serve points in his 6-7 (7), 6-4, 6-3 defeat today, and threw in a few uncharacteristically questionable shots at crucial moments.

—Perhaps because of that suffering, we were treated this week to some vintage Nadal philosophy, expressed as only he can express it. For example, this explanation for his lack of proficiency on break points:

“It is normal," Nadal said, "after a period of time without competing, only having one match before, normal that you feel a little bit the nervous.”

—And it finished, in his last press conference in Beijing, with some old-fashioned Rafa realism, the kind that some people mistakenly interpret as pessimism:

“Mentally is tough,“ he said today about returning from an injury, “every time the same process starts, bad feelings at the beginning.”


Return Game

Return Game

Still, the way Rafa’s return ended, with a quarterfinal loss to the 56th-ranked Klizan, surely that counts as a surprise? In some ways, yes. Nadal won an ultra-tight first set in a tiebreaker, and then went up a break early in the second. Normally Rafa grounds his opponent into the dust from there. Instead, serving at 4-3, he threw in two weak second serves to lose points, tried a too-cute backhand pass that Klizan cut off for a volley winner, and pushed a backhand wide that was so out of character that commentator Nick Lester was moved to exclaim, “I don’t know what Nadal was thinking with that backhand.” You don’t often—or ever—hear those words used to describe a shot of Rafa’s. And you don’t often—or ever—see him lose 16 of the last 18 points in a deciding set, as he did today.

This was Nadal’s first loss in three matches against Klizan, and the first time he had lost to a qualifier in 10 years. To make it even more bizarre, the Slovak had been down a set and 1-5 in the first round of the Beijing qualifying draw to Xin Gao, who is currently ranked No. 927. But Klizan, the streakiest of the streaky, also has as many wins over Top 20 players this year—seven—as he does losses to players outside the Top 100. And in his two previous matches against Nadal he had won the first set before being brought back down to earth.

As a lefty, Klizan can take Rafa’s best shot, his cross-court forehand, and send it right back with his own forehand. Today in Beijing, he did that with interest, and finished with 33 winners to Nadal’s 21—his return of serve was especially devastating. Klizan, even when he was behind, never appeared to lose the belief that he had the game to beat Rafa.

Some may say that this is evidence of a new, mutinous attitude from the rank and file on the men’s tour. The theory goes that, after watching the Big 4 take a few more beatings than usual this year, the rest of the men aren’t as intimidated by them. I would say instead that Klizan felt confident because of the way he had played in his other two matches against Rafa. He knew he would have his chances; it was just a matter of taking them.


Return Game

Return Game

On the one hand, Nadal’s loss is a one-off: It was his first tournament back, at an event he hasn’t won in nine years, at a time of year when he has never been at his best. For his career, he has won just three tournaments held after the U.S. Open, and two of those came in 2005. No wonder Nadal said today that he didn't expect to win this one.

On the other hand, his loss to Klizan continues a negative trend from earlier in the season—first losses. In 2014, Rafa has lost for the first time in his career to Wawrinka, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Nicolas Almagro, and now Klizan—he also lost for the first time in 10 years on clay to David Ferrer. This, to me, is a tiny, early sign of age. Nadal is 28; Roger Federer was 28 in 2010, the year he began to lose to players he had dominated throughout his career. As with Federer, Nadal will suffer more surprise losses, but they're not a sign of precipitous decline.

Nadal’s exit to Klizan reminded me most of his exit to Horacio Zeballos in the final of Viña del Mar in 2013. That was also Rafa’s first tournament back, after a much longer layoff, and his opponent was also a hard-hitting lefty who felt free to go for broke. Most important, it was a rare instance of Rafa not being in the right frame of mind to take a match that seemed certain to be his. In both cases, he was more mentally rusty than he was physically rusty.

As I said at the top, we shouldn't have expected anything else.