LONDON – The ball struck the middle of the court. Then it stopped, dropped and rolled. Rafael Nadal reached down, but not down enough, swinging and missing—flat-out whiffing on a groundstroke. The opponent raised his arms and smiled, showing off a gold tooth and tongue piercing. The Centre Court crowd cheered. Nadal jackknifed his body in disappointment.
This was the end of the first set in today’s second round Wimbledon match between Nadal and German/Jamaican combination Dustin Brown. And seeing Nadal swing-and-miss at a forehand was good a metaphor as any for what would transpire.
Two hours and three sets later, Brown closed out Nadal, 7–5, 3–6, 6–4 6–4. And it was official: Nadal is not merely vulnerable; he is now in crisis mode. When you're Nadal and give up your lease at the French Open, losing No. 1 Novak Djokovic, it stings but it doesn't devastate. Lose on Centre Court to a player ranked outside the top 100 and we have problems. As the kids say: no bueno.
The discussion for the next few days will inevitably focus on the decline of a great champion. But let’s take a station break to acknowledge Brown. A 30-year-old who saved money by living out his van as he toured Europe, “Dreddy” provided the story of the tournament.
Brown is as talented as he is fun to watch. His game is made for grass—a surface on which he’s beaten Nadal before. His damn-the-torpedoes dashes to the net were brilliant—he won 71 of his 99 serve-and-volley attempts.
But we’re also talking about a player ranked so modestly he needed to qualify for the main draw, who took the court with a poorly affixed patch reading “Lastminute.com”—a late, modest deal for an unsponsored journeyman who would be playing on a televised court.
Though Nadal has won Wimbledon twice before, he hasn’t made the later rounds since 2011. The recent list of the men who had beaten him here: Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis, Nick Kyrgios. Today may have been the worst yet. Nadal was a shell of his old self. He played tentative tennis and missed the most modest of shots by the immodest of margins. When a star is being challenged by an underdog, the first rule is: “Make the other guy play.” Nadal didn’t at all. He either missed or played with passivity. The stat sheet tells us he made a modest 15 unforced errors. But it did not account for the wafting second serves or the balls batted to the middle of the court.
"This court give the possibility to these kind of players to play like this, with chances of success," Nadal said after the match. "I didn't serve enough good. First set was important. Break, 15‑30, easy passing shot with my forehand. Well, not easy passing shot, but for me should be easy. Mistake with that passing shot. Then he played a good game, break back, then we arrive to 5‑all. And can't happen against a player like him."
In an admirably candid postmortem, Nadal owned his day and admitted that he can only aspire to the levels he reached here, when he made the finals five times between 2006 and 2011. Inadvertent or not, he spoke in the past tense, as if addressing a player who may no longer exist. It’s been an exceptional career, one of the best ever. It could be better still—count him out at your peril. But right now, even his most ardent fans, have to hope that we’re not down to the lastminute.com.
Five thoughts on Day 4
• Madison Keys was a hot pick coming in, a young American with a remorselessly powerful game that translates well to grass. She’s struggled through her first two matches but has figured out how to win. Now she’s into the third round and her draw has opened like a yawn.
• Novak Djokovic remains your favorite. But Roger Federer put on a show today, replete a tweener you have likely seen by now. And the troika of potent Slam0less vets—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych—won in straight sets as well.
• There’s been plenty of talk about the upsets in the women’s draw. No. 8 Ekaterina Makarova is the latest seed to drop. But keep an eye on defending champ Petra Kvitova. She has played four sets and lost a total of two games.
• Our doubles note of the day. In the most entertaining match of the day pre-Nadal/Brown, Lleyton Hewitt and Thanasi Kokkinakis beat No. 15 seeds Marin Draganja and Henri Kontinen, 6–7(6), 3–6, 7–6(1), 6–2, 8–6. Both Aussies—from the same hometown but divided by more than a decade—lost in the first round of singles. Now they have a fond memory from Wimbledon. If only more players tried this.
• Some popcorn matches for Friday: Raonic/Kyrgios, Isner/Cilic and Stephens/Safarova.
A few Q/A
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
As an esteemed member of the Tennis TV commentary circuit, can you explain something to me? Why do the Grand Slam broadcasts have 30 minutes of broadcasters-in-the-booth chatter to start the broadcast in the first week of a Slam when there is live tennis on? This morning I turned on the broadcast, but it wasn’t until 29 minutes in that the broadcast switched over to the Wozniacki-Allertova match, already at 4–1? I get it on a weekend broadcast where they are trying to explain the event, draw in new viewers, etc. But on Thursday in the first week? Show me some tennis. I don't want to watch [a commentator] tell me what matches are coming with photos of the players. I want to watch the live tennis that is happening now!
• An esteemed member of the commentary circuit is a terrific oxymoron. But good question—and one that comes up a lot. The tournament is barely three days old and I’ve gotten multiple variations of this. And it’s not just an American issue. The BBC’s post-match show has been the subject of withering criticism (Here’s the BBC ripping its own show!)
With a deep-inside-the-sausage-factory dateline, I can tell you that tennis is not like other sports. There’s no pregame-game-halftime-game-postgame rhythm. It’s a long stretch of matches, some compelling, other less so. You need intervals of analysis and features and other sideline programming to give context and leaven the action. It’s an inexact science. Sometimes (most times) viewers simply want to view the matches. But other times, there’s more compelling programming. Yesterday, for instance, Maria Sharapova came to the Tennis Channel set. I suspect most fans would rather watch a candid one-on-one interview with her than watch the first few unimportant games of Novak Djokovic’s rout of Jarkko Nieminen.
Sometimes this balancing act is complicated by “broadcast windows” and rights complications. I don't know the specifics of Wozniacki-Allertova. But it’s a balance. Sometimes it goes better than other times.
Guessing @jon_wertheim is rethinking his advice for Mattek-Sands to retire from singles
• There was an angry-face emoji face attached here that I can’t copy-and-paste. All credit to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. She’s 30 years old, coming off surgery and ranked outside the top 100. But she’s still a terrific attacking player who goes about her job with a damn-the-torpedoes attitude. We suggested she stick to doubles, where she has won two straight majors. Yet she qualified for the main draw and promptly won her first two matches, including a gutsy defeat of Ana Ivanovic. In that match yesterday, BMS won 29 of her 38 (38!) net approaches. We’re thrilled to admit we were wrong here.
Should Nick Kyrgios be defaulted for his run-ins with the umpires in his first two matches? I personally thought he went a bit too far, verbally questioning the umpire in his second round win. Should the ITF take a stand and use the boorish Aussie to set an example?
• Absolutely not. Kyrgios and his antics have been a big story here. I don't get it. We all want color and charisma. When we get it, it’s rebuffed. When his behavior truly turns antisocial, it’s a problem. When his worst sin is cursing (at himself) or climbing on a fence to watch a doubles match, we have no problem with him whatsoever.
A follow-up to a question you answered yesterday. You’re Genie Bouchard’s business manager. What do you tell her? (This answer, I think, is not as simple as one might think.)
• I’m not sure, honestly. But the priorities should be mental and physical health, with commercial interests way down on the list.
• Charlie Carillo wins for losing to McEnroe.
• Thursday's Daily Data Viz on big-serving Californian CoCo Vandeweghe.