WIMBLEDON, England – Relentlessly competitive and ultimately unbeatable on the red clay at the French Open, Rafael Nadal of Spain could not win so much as a set on the grass at Wimbledon this year.
It was the first time Nadal had lost in the first round in singles at a Grand Slam event, and his unlikely tormentor on Court 1 on Monday was Steve Darcis, a 29-year-old Belgian ranked 135th in the world. Darcis spent part of this season competing in the minor leagues of professional tennis, the challenger circuit.
But against the fifth-seeded Nadal, the flashy Darcis was too much to handle, producing winners with his forehand, timely first serves and defense off the full stretch that often appeared to catch Nadal by surprise on the slick grass that is part of the equation on opening day at Wimbledon.
In the end, Darcis’ 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 6-4 victory seemed surprisingly straightforward, almost shockingly so, for what was one of the biggest upsets in Wimbledon history.
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It was also the second consecutive year Nadal had given an aggressive outsider a chance to make a bigger name for himself.
“I think nobody gave me the slightest chance to win today,” Darcis said after Nadal’s record in first-round matches at majors dropped to 34-1.
A year ago, Nadal was defeated in the second round by 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic on Centre Court, with the fifth set being played under the closed roof. Nadal, because of knee problems, did not play another match for seven months before returning in February.
It has been a remarkably successful comeback, with Nadal winning seven of the nine tournaments he had played before Wimbledon, including his eighth French Open earlier this month. But in an attempt to protect his left knee, he played all but one of those nine tournaments on clay.
Though he had originally planned to play a warm-up tournament on grass in Germany, he withdrew from that event and elected to spend the week resting. The winner of 12 majors arrived at Wimbledon last Tuesday and was unable to make up for missed grass-court matches.
“At the end, it’s not a tragedy,” Nadal said. “That is sport.”
It was an inadvertent echo of a long-ago quote from Boris Becker when he was stunned in the second round of Wimbledon by the Australian journeyman Peter Doohan in 1987: “No one died out there,” Becker said. “I just lost a tennis match.”
But the surprise factor magnified the significance of this one, bringing into sharp relief details that included Nadal’s uncharacteristic errors and, perhaps most important, his struggles to move without pain in the final set.
Though he showed no sign of difficulty in the early stages of the match, he was clearly hampered by the end, struggling to reach balls normally within his range and limping noticeably after some exchanges.
Nadal, 27, declined to use his left knee as an excuse.
“I think it is not the day to talk about these kind of things,” he said.
Pressed on when he might return, considering that last year he missed seven months after losing at Wimbledon, Nadal said he expected to compete in the U.S. Open in August in New York.
Darcis has a 2-3 record in matches at Wimbledon, but he certainly looked like a winner as he finished off the match with an ace.
“If you start to focus on him, it’s tougher,” Darcis said of playing Nadal. “It’s already tough tennis. I tried to focus on myself, what I have to do, and I think I did great today.”