So good for so long on the clay at the French Open, where he's won 59 of 60 career matches, Rafael Nadal is suddenly mediocre on Wimbledon's grass, where he's surprisingly been beaten twice in a row.
So good for so long on the clay at the French Open, where he’s won 59 of 60 career matches, Rafael Nadal is suddenly mediocre on Wimbledon’s grass, where he’s surprisingly been beaten twice in a row.
What a 15-day swing for Nadal: from a record eighth championship at Roland Garros to a quick-as-can-be exit at the All England Club in the only first-round Grand Slam loss of his career.
Noticeably limping and generally out of sorts, Nadal departed Wimbledon with a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4 loss Monday against 135th-ranked Steve Darcis of Belgium – a shockingly early and straightforward result that ranks among the most memorable upsets in the grass-court tournament’s history.
“Two weeks ago, I was in a fantastic situation, winning a fantastic tournament,” Nadal said. “Two weeks later, I lost here in the first round. That’s the positive and the negative thing about this sport.”
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Shaking his head as he leaned back in a black leather chair at his news conference, Nadal said: “Nobody remembers the losses. People remember the victories. And I don’t want to remember that loss.”
Others surely will.
“As a fan of tennis, it’s probably disappointing that he’s out, because he’s a fun guy to watch,” reigning U.S. Open champion Andy Murray said after his straight-set victory Monday. “He’s one of the best players that’s ever played, so it’s a shame in that respect.”
Indeed, Nadal’s 12 Grand Slam titles are tied for the third-most in tennis history. That includes two trophies from Wimbledon, in 2008 and 2010, part of a six-year stretch in which he reached the final five times from 2006-11.
But a year ago, Nadal lost in the second round to Lukas Rosol, a player ranked 100th at the time. After that setback, Nadal missed about seven months because of a bad left knee. Since returning, he had gone 43-2 and reached the finals at all nine tournaments he entered, winning seven.
Two days before Wimbledon started, Nadal spoke about having more trouble on grass than other surfaces lately because its low skids force him to bend his knees so much to reach shots. Nadal decided to skip a grass-court tuneup tournament between the French Open and Wimbledon, opting to rest instead, and arrived in England on Tuesday to begin preparing in earnest.
On Monday, after his 22-match winning streak came to a sudden halt, he said, “I didn’t move the way I need to if I’m going to win on this surface.”
Nadal avoids discussing health issues in the immediate aftermath of a defeat – he didn’t reveal the left knee injury last year until weeks after the Rosol match – and Monday was no different. Still, anyone who watched Nadal play Darcis could tell something wasn’t right.
Nadal deflected three questions in English about his left knee, saying it’s “not the day to talk about these kind of things” and that it would sound like “an excuse.” When a reporter asked in Spanish about the knee, Nadal replied: “You’re assuming I’m injured.” He later did repeat what he mentioned at Roland Garros, which is that the knee is painful at times.
“Maybe he was not in the best shape ever. Maybe he didn’t play his best match,” Darcis said, noting that he wants to get his hands on of a DVD of the most significant victory of his career. “But I have to be proud.”
That’s for sure.
Darcis had been 7-18 in Grand Slam matches, a .280 winning percentage, including 12 first-round losses. So when asked his reaction upon hearing last week that he would be facing Nadal, Darcis smiled broadly and gave a one-word answer unfit for publication.
Then he added: “When you see the draw, of course you say, `Ah, it’s bad luck.'”
Nadal’s loss rendered moot all the debate in the preceding days about whether his No. 5 seeding was appropriate and whether Wimbledon officials should have bumped him higher because of past success at the grass-court tournament.
His ranking slid during his time off, and he wound up in the same half of the draw as seven-time champion Roger Federer and 2012 runner-up Murray. A possible Nadal-Federer quarterfinal loomed, as did a potential Nadal-Murray semifinal.
“Pretty irrelevant right now,” Murray said. “It’s obviously surprising. But, you know, the consistency that Rafa, Roger, Novak (Djokovic) have shown in the Slams over the last five, six years, it’s going to be almost impossible to keep that up forever.”
While Nadal was struggling, Federer and Murray looked the way title contenders are supposed to in the first round. Federer, the defending champion, needed all of 68 minutes to beat 48th-ranked Victor Hanescu of Romania 6-3, 6-2, 6-0 on Centre Court, as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice looked on from the Royal Box.
“Perfect day,” Federer said.
Not so much for the second-seeded woman, Victoria Azarenka, who twisted her right knee early in the second set of her match. She tumbled to the grass, sobbing. After about a 10-minute break while a trainer wrapped Azarenka’s knee, the two-time Australian Open champion finished off a 6-1, 6-2 victory over 106th-ranked Maria Joao Koehler of Portugal.
“It just completely freaked me out,” Azarenka said.
The most noteworthy result in women’s matches came when fifth-seeded Sara Errani, the 2012 French Open runner-up, lost 6-3, 6-2 to Puerto Rican teenager Monica Puig.
Murray, bidding to become the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, eliminated 92nd-ranked Benjamin Becker of Germany 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Murray lost to Federer in last year’s final, then returned to the same spot four weeks later and beat Federer for a gold medal at the London Olympics.
Nadal missed the Summer Games because of his left knee, part of a stretch from June to February in which he also sat out the U.S. Open and Australian Open. Pressed about his upcoming schedule, and the notion that his grinding, hustling style might put too much pounding on his body, Nadal at first said Monday that no one can ever be sure about the future.
But he did say: “I don’t have any intention of missing the U.S. Open,” the year’s last Grand Slam tournament, which begins in late August.
Nadal gave the 29-year-old Darcis kudos for playing well. Taking big swings and connecting time and again, Darcis finished with 53 winners to Nadal’s 32, while making the same number of unforced errors. Nadal would slump his shoulders or hang his head after misses, and there was a noticeable hitch in his step on some points.
“Nobody was expecting me to win. So I had to play a good match, relax and enjoy. … That’s what I did,” Darcis said. “I really wanted to do something today.”
He did something no one ever had: In 34 previous major tournaments, Nadal was 34-0 in the first round. Overall, he came in 164-22 at majors, an .882 winning percentage. In the first 178 Grand Slam matches of his career, Nadal never lost in any round to a player ranked lower than 70th. But in his last nine major matches, he’s been beaten by a pair of guys in the hundreds.
Asked what he did well Monday, Nadal said: “Not a lot of things.”
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