WIMBLEDON, England -- A wise man once said of tennis, "This is a sport of victories, not a sport of losses. Nobody remember the losses. People remember the victories."
Actually, Rafael Nadal said that on Monday, after being expelled from Wimbledon in the first round by Steve Darcis, a result so shocking that it continues to reverberate.
Nadal was right and he was wrong. Yes, it's the winners' names and images that are splayed throughout the complex and engraved on the trophies. True, we remember the champions more than we remember the 127 other players sifted out of the tournament.
But tennis is a zero-sum game. If it were a math equation, it would be filled with one plus for every minus, an equal ratio of wins and losses. For every winner, there is a loser. For all the players gamboling gleefully to the net after match point feeling thankful, relieved, thrilled to advance, there is an equal number of opponents approaching the same net forlornly, wishing the outcome had been different.
No player, though, has been losing as early and often as poor Arantxa Rus. A 22-year-old from Holland, Rus has enjoyed considerable success in the past, including a run as the world's top-ranked junior. At the 2011 French Open, she knocked off Kim Clijsters, then the second seed. At Wimbledon a year ago, Rus beat Sam Stosur. Armed with a lefty game and endowed with the posture of a runway model, Rus looks elegant, almost imperious, as she takes the court. And then the match starts.
Rus has not won a solitary main-draw match in 2013. Not one. In fact, her last WTA win came last August in Dallas, more than 10 months ago. Like Johnny Cash, she's been everywhere, man. From Miami to Marrakech to Melbourne. They've been short and forgettable trips, filled with down time as the losses mount. We can debate whether this makes it worse or, perversely better, but she's rarely even put herself in position to win. Only two of her 13 WTA losses this year even went three sets.
Tuesday, Rus played Olga Puchkova of Russia; Puchkova is a credible player, but, with a ranking of No. 86, hardly a world beater. In other words, precisely the kind of player Rus ought to be able to beat. But this match was a microcosm for her year.
Rus served poorly when she needed to serve well. She played tight when she needed to be loose. She mishit balls when the situation called for accuracy. Playing on Court 9, she fell 6-4, 6-2. Of the 100 or so fans ringing the court, few likely knew they were witnessing a kind of ignominious history. With the loss, she tied the WTA record for consecutive defeats. According to the WTA, her 17th straight loss ties the mark set by Sandy Collins between 1984-87.
Afterward, she was pleasant and professional but, quite understandably, something less than engaged when asked about her recent woes. Staring at fingernails painted Dutch orange, she spoke with detachment.
"I need to play [better] to win matches at this level."
"I try my best."
"I try to keep working hard. That's the only thing you can do."
Even when questions went to Dutch, her expression didn't change. She dropped the word "negatief" many times.
Like a Premier League soccer team, Rus will likely be relegated now. With a current ranking of No. 156 -- and it will plummet further after Wimbledon -- she'll likely be consigned to the Challenger level, which may be a blessing in disguise. Off the WTA main stage, she'll be able to rebuild her game, fortify her confidence and get back to where she once belonged.
As media types, we're duty-bound to not root for players. But it's hard to avoid quietly cheering for this struggling Dutch player not to win titles, but simply to get out of her current Nether lands.
Is clay that much easier physically to play on than grass? Rafael Nadal thoroughly dominates the clay season, with no real visible sign of problems through the French, and then has such difficulty a few weeks later. This pattern has consistently repeated itself. Or maybe after the clay season he lessens the use of pain killers and anti-inflammatories?
--Jeff G., Cleveland
• Short answer: You would think that grass -- what with its short points and short steps -- would be easier on the body than clay and the grinding and defense and sliding it necessitates. But the low bounce on grass requires competitors to bend, and if your knees are problematic, one can see why the surface could be problematic.
Longer answer: As essentially a private contractor in a individual sport, Nadal gets a fair amount of leeway with regard to medical decisions. It's his body, his decision-making and he has a right to privacy. If Nadal played a team sport -- with a guaranteed contract, fans who were season-ticket holders, salary-cap implications, a team doctor -- we would be a lot more probing about his knee condition. You miss seven months, but decide against surgery? You come back and play 45 matches in four months? You look untouchable on clay, take a two week break, but then appear clearly compromised at your next event?
Not meant to condemn or condone Nadal. But it's interesting that injuries (see: Rose, Derrick) are assessed so differently depending on the sport.
If Steve Darcis was ranked 135, how did he get in the tournament (or should I say, The Championships Wimbledon)?
-- Bill, Tulsa
• At the time of the draw cutoff several weeks ago, Darcis was ranked a whopping No. 105.
GOAT discussion aside, it's inspiring to see Nadal continuously giving credit to his opponent and refusing to credit injury as a factor. Our youth can learn a lot from today's leaders in men's tennis.
-- Bob Smith, Philadelphia
• I totally agree. There's also something authentic about it. He suffers a brutal upset and goes right to press room and starts dropping lines, like: "''Everything I would say today about my knee is an excuse, and I don't want to make excuses.''
Or: "All I can say is congratulations to Steve. Anything I say about my knee is an excuse and he does not deserve an excuse...I tried my best in every moment."
Milos Raonic's game seems like it would be perfectly suited for grass. So then why is he so ... how do I put this nicely ... unbelievably terrible on grass?
-- Steve, USA
• He looked awfully strong Tuesday, beating Carlos Berloq in straight sets. Looking at his draw, he has a real chance for that much-anticipated breakthrough.
How do the qualifying rounds work in a Grand Slam? Are they mini-tournaments or round-robin play?
-- Jon, Philadelphia
• I guess if those are my options, I'd go with mini-tournament. Have a look here.
Nadal? Errani? Ah, the curse of being the fifth seed at Wimbledon.
-- Jim Shackleton, Olympia, Wash.
• I hope this doesn't sound exceedingly harsh, but after reaching the French Open final in 2012, Errani was served a golden set by Yaroslava Shvedova at Wimbledon. After reaching the French Open semis in 2013, she was blitzed by a little-known teenager, Monica Puig.
• Eoghan Mitchell of London: "I saw the tail end of Rafael Nadal's practice on Court 11 with Juan Monaco on Monday. As a huge fan of the man and the player, I took the chance to shout, 'Good luck today, Rafa' as he made his way toward the Centre Court locker rooms. His reaction struck me as a little pained -- a less than enthusiastic and quite curt, 'Hi, thanks.' It was lacking in the usual charm that one would usually associate with the man from Manacor. (And you know how good and charming he usually is with fans.) Maybe he was sick of the crowds, but it got me thinking as I sat on Court 3 watching the score from Centre, I was reminded of his less-than-sunny demeanor I had witnessed at 11:30 a.m. Having just completed his final practice, was he resigned to the fact that he just wasn't right health-wise? I might be totally wrong here, but it just struck me as odd."
• On this the 25-year anniversary of Steffi Graf's Golden Slam, Anonymous notes: "From Maria Sharapova to Tsvetana Pironkova to Sorana Cirstea to Monica Puig, one thing that most of them have in common is their admiration for Steffi Graf -- and tennis pundits say she didn't do anything for the game. Little did they realize that just playing on the court is enough to inspire millions around the world."
• LT of Toronto has long-lost siblings: Rafael Nadal and actor Zosia Mamet of HBO's Girls.