Disconcerting start for Rafa in Rome

If you were wondering if Rafael Nadal would suffer from a Madrid hangover, the answer was clearly yes. Perhaps it still comes as a surprise that he didn't once again go unbeaten during the clay-court swing, but to struggle against Paolo Lorenzi, who'd won all of six matches in his career, is another story.

Nadal lost a set on clay to a player ranked outside the top 100 for the first time in six years. And if Lorenzi hadn't missed a makeable volley serving at 4-4, 30-0 in the second, the result, a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-0 win for Nadal at the Rome Masters, might have been different.

Nadal's 37-match winning streak on dirt ended at the Madrid Open last week, where a higher altitude and starved court conditions made for a swifter surface. Call it ironic that, playing at home in the tour's second-biggest clay-court tournament, Nadal hasn't had much joy. He's won the event only once -- discounting its days indoors

No one was shocked, either, that Novak Djokovic inflicted the defeat. He's rolling along, a winner of 33 straight matches to open the 2011 season, after Wednesday's 6-0, 6-3 drubbing of unfortunate chap Lukasz Kubot in Rome.

But there was astonishment at the Foro Italico following Djokovic's waltz. Nadal was supposed to crush the Italian qualifier, Lorenzi.

Nadal's forehand was shaky, and he blew several overheads, a shot he usually converts in his sleep. One of the best volleyers on the tour, he was reluctant to go forward, even when Lorenzi was on the defensive, frequently paying the price in the opening two sets by missing the next ball from the baseline. He rarely opted for the forehand down the line, and on the occasions when Lorenzi was well behind the baseline, kept the drop shot in his pocket.

Contrast that with Djokovic. The serve is better than ever before, his movement remains exquisite, and it seems he now has the mindset of a Nadal or Roger Federer, completely driven on court. There's no messing around.

Djokovic has also figured out why he was having so many physical issues. The man whose parents make mean pancakes and pizza is gluten intolerant. He can still dish out bagels, though.

"Djokovic has no weakness at all, zero," coaching guru Nick Bollettieri said in a phone interview.

Bollettieri watched Sunday's final with interest. He was impressed with how Djokovic handled Nadal's bread-and-butter shot against right-handers on clay, the cross-court forehand. Federer has seen too many of those.

Djokovic had the answer, often ripping cross-court backhands in reply for outright winners or putting Nadal on the defensive.

"Look where Novak stood on the baseline," Bollettieri said. "He was inside the baseline. He negated the biggest shot of Nadal. Nadal's got to study the film."

But does that mean Nadal -- who fell to Djokovic for the first time in 10 encounters on clay and has lost three straight overall against the charging world No. 2 -- shouldn't be considered the French Open favorite?

Nadal has been here before. In 2005, 2007 and 2008, he was beaten en route to Roland Garros, only to walk away the winner when it really mattered.

After Federer ended Nadal's record 81-match winning streak on clay in Hamburg four years ago, he called it a "breakthrough," a word some have used to describe Djokovic's victory last weekend. Weeks later, Nadal quashed the momentum by comfortably downing Federer in the French Open final.

Conditions in Paris suggest Nadal should have more success with the cross-court forehand if they tangle again. Unlike Madrid, his balls will shoot off the clay, going higher to the backhand, especially in warmer weather.

Djokovic's improved conditioning notwithstanding, Nadal has the physical edge in a longer format.

He'll be extremely pumped. When Nadal was outdone by Djokovic in the Indian Wells and Miami finals, there were semi and full embraces, respectively, as the matches concluded.

Nadal was annoyed with himself Sunday, only offering up a quick handshake to his buddy.

He'll be happy to get Wednesday out of his system.

"I still go with Rafa," Bollettieri said. "Even though you're supposed to play every single match, there's something about a Grand Slam that puts it in the level of the Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby. Champions find a way to rise to the top and I believe that will still be the case."