TURIN, Italy — There was a moment Sunday night when Rafael Nadal was suddenly Rafael Nadal again.

This happened during Nadal’s first set at the ATP Finals. He was the top seed and had only played one singles match since September’s loss at U.S. Open. The entire sequence took approximately four seconds. There was a chase from deep inside the backcourt to capture a drop shot by American Taylor Fritz just before the second bounce. After that, there was a bizarre, backhanded snap overhead hit from the sharpest angle.

Cue Nadal’s Signature hop-skip, roundhouse fist pump and a roaring crowd. Members of Nadal’s Overflowing player box that included his parents, coach Carlos Moya, his sister, wife and agent. “Vamos,” Their boy wonder is still a delight after all these years.

But the moment was fleeting. Fritz was still drilling Nadal after he won the first set tiebreaker. His momentum and his untouchable first serves saw him win the match 7-6 (3), 6-1. Nadal, 22-time Grand Slam singles champion had lost to Fritz for a third time, 7-6 (3), 6-1. This was a strange streak for him, and yet another disturbing detail at the close of a year that saw a back from the dead revival and his first child.

“Six tough months in all ways,” Nadal spoke Tuesday, after he lost his second match in the tournament.

Nadal was known for his determination and ability to never lose his temper, so he was throwing balls around the court in an attempt to correct his mistakes.

Tuesday afternoon was more frustrating for Nadal, who once again showed glimpses at his old magic with his powerful forehands, and rifling backhands. But too often in the crucial moments against Felix Auger-Aliassime, the rising Canadian, he either found himself playing defense or making sloppy errors that betrayed his inactivity — just eight singles matches since July. Auger-Aliassime won his third match against Nadal, winning 6-3,6-4. Nadal’s Hoping to get past the round-robin phase.

Perhaps the most strange thing about it all is the fact that even the young players, who used to crumple when Nadal crossed the net, now see his vulnerability.

Fritz was not one to consider himself the favorite against Nadal. He had defeated him in a fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon in July, despite a severe abdominal tear that forced him to leave court. Fritz admitted that he was so hurt by the loss that he wanted to cry after it was over. The next day, Nadal pulled out of the tournament.

Fritz was happy with his chances in Turin on a fast and slick court. Nadal had just played his second singles match since September.

“I felt like I had a really good chance of winning,” He said.

Auger-Aliassime said he gained confidence after he and Nadal played service games in the first set.

“I was like, ‘Look, I have a real chance of winning this,’” He said. “I was comfortable in certain situations. I definitely believed that I could win.”

A few days earlier, Fritz had made Nadal feel things he rarely has against someone other than Novak Djokovic — rushed and under pressure, as though somehow Fritz had all the time in the world to do whatever he wanted with his shots while Nadal had no time at all.

“Everything was going so fast,” Sunday was Nadal’s day.

He tried to slow things down Tuesday afternoon by drifting further behind the baseline, but this only allowed Auger Aliassime to keep pushing forward.

The sense of being limited in time is a common theme. Nadal’s He spent the entire year doing things big and small. He knows that he is nearing the end of his career and that any appearance at an event could be his last. His family knows this too, which may explain why his Turin box is full just weeks after his first child was born. “Vamos” To the end.

He missed the majority of 2021’s second half, so he went to Australia in January. It was only seven weeks since he had been on crutches and figured it would be his last chance to play there, given his declining body and chronically injured left foot. He got better with each match, fell two sets down to Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the final and somehow won the year’s first Grand Slam tournament.

He was suffering from a cracked rib as he competed in the Indian Wells finals of BNP Paribas Open. Before each match of the French Open, he took a shot to anesthetize his foot. He was still on crutches and left Paris carrying his 14th French Open singles champion.

He entered Wimbledon, his first grass-court match in three years without ever playing a tuneup. He won every match he played.

He was unable to practice his serve for several weeks and had only played one hardcourt match before arriving at the U.S. Open. He was not 100 percent mentally and physically. His wife was at the end of a difficult pregnancy. Frances Tiafoe defeated him in four sets in round 4. This was the first American-born player who beat Nadal at Grand Slam since he a teenager.

Nadal could have called it a year at another point in his career. Instead he partnered with Roger Federer in the Swiss champion’s final competitive match, then tried to get healthy for this tournament, a gathering of the most successful eight players of the season.

He was not ready to compete by that point. He was forced to compete at the Paris Masters, rather than at a smaller tournament featuring lesser players. Tommy Paul, who was trained with Fritz and Tiafoe as a child, defeated Nadal in the first match in three sets.

The young Americans, and then Auger-Aliassime on Tuesday, caught Nadal in the sport’s Catch-22. You need to feel comfortable playing matches to win. The only way to become more comfortable is to win.

“You need to be quicker on your legs, quicker on your mind,” Nadal added. “You need to win matches to make that happen.”

Nadal will probably have to wait until then. After this event, he will not compete again until tennis begins its 2023 season in Australia on New Year’s weekend. He has agreed to represent Spain at the United Cup, which is a round-robin event for mixed teams. It will allow him to play against some top players before he attempts defend his 2022 Australian Open title.

His desire to be a father despite his age and the new birth of his child is not diminished by his physical and mental ailments.

“I don’t know if I going to reach that level again,” Tuesday’s statement was made by Nadal. “But what I don’t have is any doubt that I’m going to die for it.”

Also, since Australia’s tennis summer follows the off-season, nearly everyone else should be as rusty as he is.

They might have more time.