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'Nadal losing fear factor'

Sky Sports Sky Sports 22/02/2016
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Barry Cowan believes players no longer fear Rafael Nadal following the Spaniard's latest setback on the ATP Tour. 

Nadal has suffered semi-final defeats in each of the last two ATP events, both on his favoured clay surface, but after losing to talented teenager Dominic Thiem at the Argentina Open, it was defeat to seasoned campaigner Pablo Cuevas at the Rio Open that should set alarm bells ringing.

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Cowan claimed last week that Nadal needed to win in Rio to rebuild his shattered confidence but rather than a morale-boosting fortnight on the red dirt, the world No 5 has been left with more questions to answer after a first-round exit to Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open

"For me this is his toughest test as a tennis player. Is he going to come out of it?" said Cowan.

"A year ago I said yes, I felt that great things were there for Rafa. Five in the world is no disaster but we are judging him on winning Slams and going through clay court seasons without even losing a match or even coming close to losing a match, but at the moment he is a long long way off that.

"For Rafa I really really worry that he is losing his nerve. At no stage on Saturday did he look confident, even when he won that first set. He keeps doubting himself. Whether he has lost a half yard of pace and that's affecting him, I think it's more that he's lacking self belief and he is second guessing himself.

"It is sad to see a great player and a great champion struggle as much as he is at the moment."

While world No 1 Novak Djokovic prepares to return at this week's Dubai Championships, live on Sky Sports, after his triumph in Melbourne, Cowan believes 11-time Grand Slam champion Nadal's dip coincides with some of the brightest prospects in the game now beginning to fulfil their potential.

"At the moment when you look at the game as a whole, there is a bit of a shift going on," added Cowan.

"Djokovic is head and shoulders above the rest, Andy has started the year playing superbly in the Australian Open. Roger [Federer] is injured at the moment and Nadal...there are massive question marks over.

"Then there is this young crop who week-by-week are starting to win titles - it was Dominic Thiem a week ago. [Nick] Kyrgios won his first title and didn't lose serve all week."

It has been a good couple of week's for the next generation of stars on the ATP Tour, Nick Kyrgios winning his maiden title in Marseille over the weekend, after Thiem claimed the Argentina Open having ousted Nadal in the last four - and Cowan believes the young guns are now playing without fear, including against Nadal.

"I felt it was a tournament Rafa had to win and he didn't but it was just what happened and the way the scenarios built up through the week," said Cowan.

"At no stage on Saturday did he [Cuevas] have doubts about being able to cross the finish line and this is an old campaigner - what about the younger breed, the Kyrgios' of the world, they are not going to feat playing Nadal because its about Nadal now, not Nadal five years ago.

"Rafa won so many of his matches on clay before he even walked onto the court, players didn't believe they could beat him but now players like Cuevas, who is 30 years of age, believes he can."

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