SHANGHAI --Despite the fact that there was some futility in clutch situations and some losses he would rather forget, most people would agree that Rafael Nadal's 2011 season has been one to savor.
This year, the second-ranked Nadal's won three titles -- Monte Carlo, Barcelona and his 10th Grand Slam title at the French Open. Beyond those victories, Nadal also reached the finals at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Tokyo.
But one of the drawbacks to being one of the best ever is being held to a higher standard.
With three stops to go, Nadal is 3-7 in finals this year and six of those final losses were suffered at the hands of the incredible and nearly invincible Novak Djokovic. The Serb, who won the other three majors, is the guy who dethroned Nadal from the top ranking after beating him in the Wimbledon final in July.
Earlier this week at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, Nadal was sounding confident, and said despite losing to Djokovic in the U.S. Open final and to Andy Murray in last week's Tokyo final, he believed his game was in a good place.
But on Thursday, Nadal's game fell flat against Germany's Florian Mayer, who summarily ushered him to the exit in a 7-6 (5), 6-3 round-of-16 victory. Tied at 3-3 in the second set, Mayer broke Nadal's serve twice in the next three games to move into the quarterfinals. Nadal watched helplessly as Mayer ran down a drop shot and hit a winning backhand around him for the win.
All that "everything is OK" we heard in previous days had been wiped out. Nadal was down. He was confused as to why he had little resistance to offer against Mayer. Once again this season, the usually brawny Nadal just didn't seem focused or sharp on the court.
"For me, today is a disappointing day," said Nadal, sadly. "Today is a tough loss, that's the truth. For me today is hard to say more things because I felt that I was doing everything right before the tournament. It was not my day. I am out of the tournament."
Beyond Djokovic owning him this year and this week's defeat to Mayer, Nadal also has had to grapple with losing 6-0 in the final set of last week's final in Tokyo to Murray.
If there was any compensation for Nadal in that match it was that Murray is quick to admit that he played "in the zone" tennis.
"What happened in the third set, it probably never happened to him before, and I'll probably never play a set of tennis again like that on tour," Murray said. "I think I lost four or five points. It's just one of those sets where I hardly missed a ball. I wished it happened every day, but the reality is, it's not going to be like that."
Despite that, anyway you look at it, when a guy of Nadal's caliber can't get on the scoreboard in a set, it's a shocker.
"[I'm] not happy about that third set for sure," Nadal said. "No discussion about that because I can't lose -- even if he is playing fantastic, even if he is playing perfect -- I can't lose my serve three times in a row."
While there have been disappointing moments, there's no reason to make wholesale changes.
One thing Nadal remains happy about is the people he's surrounded himself with throughout his career. He is a loyalist and his uncle, Toni, has been his coach since childhood. That will not change, although in 2005 Francisco Roig was brought in to pick up some of the slack so Toni Nadal wouldn't have to constantly travel. This week, Roig was handling the coaching duties.
"I believe 100 percent in my team," Nadal said. "I always think when I am losing, it's my fault, not the fault of my team. I have to improve with my people who know exactly my game and know exactly what I have to do to keep improving. The only chance to change something will be because some one of my team wants to go. I'm [not] going to fire anyone."
Friends, such as fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, don't believe Nadal has done anything wrong this year.
"Well, I think Rafa, he had bad luck this year," said Ferrer, who reached the quarterfinals here on Thursday. "Of course, Djokovic had an unbelievable season, no? He won everything. Rafa, maybe in the important moments, he didn't play so good. I think next year it's going to be better for him because this year I think Djokovic had something that is going to be very difficult to repeat the next year."
Nadal knows just how difficult it is to follow an incredible season with a similar performance the following year. In 2010, he won three of the four Grand Slams and seven overall titles and kept a firm grasp on the No. 1 ranking.
"I believe Rafa 2010 had something more special than Rafa 2011, especially in tough situations," Nadal said, smiling. "That's the truth. Win or lose depends on these very, very small things. And probably these very, very small things I did a little bit better in 2010 than 2011."
Nadal's immediate plan is to push tennis to the backburner for a couple of days. But there's still no escape from the game this year for him. He's still to play at Paris-Bercy, the year-end finals in London, and the Davis Cup final against Argentina in Seville, Spain.
"Today is not the best day to think about the rest of the season," Nadal said. "Today is the best day to go to play golf tomorrow morning, to have a rest little bit. The season has been long for me. Very positive season, but at the same time tough season for me. These kind of losses affect you. It's normal."