What's wrong with Rafa?

Until Friday, Rafael Nadal has not lost at the Barcelona Open since he was 16 years old. AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

Rafael Nadal tried to wipe the bad taste of Monte Carlo’s red clay out of his mouth in Barcelona, where he was gunning this week to win the title a surreal-sounding ninth time. But the top seed got red dirt kicked in his face again Friday as he lost a tight and dramatic three-setter to Nicolas Almagro.

This was Nadal’s first loss in Barcelona since he was 16 years old, way back in 2003. On that occasion, he lost to a fellow countryman ranked No. 17, Alex Corretja. On Friday, he failed against a Spaniard ranked No. 20. The loss ended Nadal’s consecutive-match winning streak at Barcelona at 41.

Heck, until Friday, Nadal hadn’t even lost a set in Barcelona since David Ferrer took one off him in a doomed effort in the final of 2008. That’s five tournaments worth of straight-sets beatdowns culminating in five titles.

Nadal has now lost to a fellow Spanish player in back-to-back clay-court tournaments. (Ferrer also took him out last week in Monte Carlo). This detail will only add impetus to an already percolating story: “What’s wrong with Rafa?”

Granted, that once absolutely trustworthy forehand has let Nadal down a surprising number of times, and often in key moments, in his past few matches. He also has made some uncharacteristically sloppy errors in situations where he once fired a remarkable shot to turn around an entire match.

In the final game Friday, Nadal had two break points, and Almagro could take credit for wiping away only one of them; Nadal took care of the other, drilling a woeful forehand into the net.

Later, Nadal escaped a match point when Almagro made an unforced backhand error to send the score back to deuce. That rattled Almagro; you could see it. But Nadal failed to capitalize on the situation. He hit a backhand return long and Almagro then converted his second match point with a forehand winner. Is it time for panic in the Nadal camp?

I’m not so sure, because though Barcelona isn’t even a Masters event (it’s an ATP 500), it’s of enormous importance to Spanish fans -- and Spanish players. There’s a reason Nadal’s fellow ATP elites avoid Barcelona like it’s in the throes of an outbreak of bubonic plague. Do you think a Roger Federer or Andy Murray is interested in showing up in Barcelona, only to have to play some guy who’s so fired up he thinks he’s Nadal -- or, like Almagro, thinks he’s capable of beating Nadal?

Thanks to the success of the Spanish players, this tournament over the years has become the unofficial Spanish national championships, which helps explain why Nadal has been so loyal to it, despite the fact that it’s an ATP 500, added to a schedule as thick with Masters events and the French Open as a stack of pancakes. Nadal is just as interested in bragging rights in his homeland as any of his rivals.

After Nadal and No. 2 seed Ferrer (significantly, he also lost -- and in the first round, no less), the highest-ranked player in the Barcelona draw was No. 13 Fabio Fognini. There were 12 Spanish men in the draw (all of whom qualified via direct acceptances, as well as a few wild cards and qualifiers), and now there’s just one left -- and his name isn’t Nadal, it’s Almagro.

The Spanish players who don’t overachieve at this tournament can easily succumb to the pressure, which is partly what happened this year. No. 5 seed Tommy Robredo’s reaction when he lost his match the other day to Marin Cilic was vivid proof. Robredo looked simply devastated.

The stature of the event is well-earned. The tournament goes back to 1953 -- long before Spanish players were making much of an impact on the game. The first winner at Barcelona was an American, Vic Seixas.

Until today, it seemed that Nadal might go on winning this thing until the next American champ comes along, but that’s not going to happen. Friday’s result may have been more about what’s right with Spanish tennis than what’s wrong with Rafa.