Nadal's loss rocks Wimbledon, reignites questions about his future

Monday June 24th, 2013

This marks the second year in a row that Rafael Nadal has lost in the early rounds of Wimbledon.

WIMBLEDON, England -- A year ago, it made for a good tennis thought exercise: Name a more seismic upset in the men's game than Lukas Rosol's second-round takedown of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Even allowing for Nadal's compromised physical state that day, this was a thoroughly counterintuitive result, a Czech journeyman ranked No. 100 outlasting the great Nadal, who had made the final in his last five appearances, including two titles.

The same thought exercise can begin anew. And sadly for Nadal, again, his name and seeding were on wrong side of the "d."

In a stunning display of grass-court tennis -- coupled with an unmistakable sense that the most problematic body parts in tennis were again misbehaving -- No. 135 Steve Darcis, a Belgian veteran with a grand total of two ATP wins this year leading into Wimbledon, defeated Nadal 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4 on Monday. Nadal, a 12-time Grand Slam winner, lost his opening match at a major for the first time.

When the score was shown during Andy Murray's simultaneous match, the Centre Court crowd gasped collectively as though someone had used the wrong fork. In the locker rooms, players clustered around televisions to watch. Some fans (and the odd media member) took photos of the scoreboard to make sure it wasn't a typo.

NGUYEN: Roundup of reaction to Darcis' stunning victory

Here it was, barely tea time on the first day of play, and the entire event was concussed by this result. Nadal's controversial No. 5 seeding? His much-anticipated quarterfinal match against Roger Federer? Nadal's likelihood of building on the French Open title he won with his typically violent and relentless tennis just 15 days ago? His assault on the No.1 ranking, having reached the final of all nine events he's entered since his February return? All moot points now.

Steve Darcis had won two ATP-level matches this year before upsetting Rafael Nadal.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Let's dispense with the injury report first: Nadal, to his credit, refused to his address his health in what was more a postmortem than a press conference that followed his defeat.

"This is not the day to talk about these kinds of things," he said more than once.

Maybe not for him. But for the rest of us, it was clear that he was struggling on the grass, a surface that requires more bending and more work from his recalcitrant knees. He ambled halfway to Kensington to avoid hitting backhands, hemming himself into the corners. He barely gave chase to drop shots. He appeared appreciably less physical than he did in Paris. Even walking back to the locker room in defeat, he grimaced slightly as he climbed a series of stairs. Inasmuch as there's good news, he's vowed to return to his normal schedule and rejected the suggestion that, despite an auspicious history, he might miss a significant chunk of the schedule.

Injury report over.

GALLERY: Greatest upsets in sports history

Even at full health, who knows if Nadal would have won? Not unlike Rosol a year ago, Darcis met the moment by putting on a grass-court clinic that gave the lie to his ranking. He opened the court with a wide serve and won scads of points with his second shot. He scampered all over the court, diving on multiple occasions and flicking gorgeous forehands and one-handed backhands on the run. He played with bravado on the biggest points, winning a pair of tiebreaks. Up 2-0 in sets, he gave no quarter, breaking Nadal early in the third. Serving for the match, he set up match point with a highlight reel of a forehand. Then he pounded an ace up the middle.

"I saw from the beginning I was good in the match," Darcis said. "Of course, Rafa didn't play his best tennis. I could see it. So I took advantage of it. I tried to fight."

If social media is a barometer, this outcome will reignite the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) debate. It will trigger questions about Nadal's future. (He played it cautious and classy in his news conference, but when he off-handedly said, "I hope to have a few more years to play here," it hardly inspired confidence.) In the coming days, we'll see how this glaring absence in the draw will affect the tournament.

Now, though, let's linger on Darcis and pay homage to one of the ATP rank-and-file members who's been grinding for a decade and, befitting a player nicknamed "Shark," was the predator and not the prey Monday. It's one those performances that sustains a 29-year-old who was playing -- and losing -- Challenger-level matches earlier this spring. The players crowding around the monitors? It wasn't schadenfreude. It was inspiration. Hey, if this guy ranked No. 135 can beat Nadal at a major, what are my capabilities?

In an attempt to minimize the magnitude of his loss, Nadal declared tennis "a sport of victories, not a sport of losses. Nobody remembers the losses. People remember the victories." If it's true, Steve Darcis just embedded himself in memory. Good for him.


Now that we have a few years of experience behind us, what do you think of having 32 seeds vs. the traditional 16 at Grand Slam tournaments? Most of the Week 1 excitement at the French Open came from underachieving floaters like Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis -- precisely the kind of thing that would happen more often if there were only 16 seeds.
-- Rich, New York

• I agree that a 16-seed format makes for better early matches. As it stands now, most seeded players do not face a top-50 opponent until the third round. (That made little difference for Nadal on Monday, of course.)

Here's my crass commercial take in favor of the 32 seeds: The prize money at the majors has become so significant that I can see why the guys ranked Nos. 17-32 would want to reduce their chances of playing better players early.

You recently stated that Rafa's winning eight French Opens puts him "in a new realm." What realm does Roger Federer get to if he can win his eighth Wimbledon title?
-- Marina, Dallas

• The realm of the Mad G-d?

Beyond The Baseline recently linked to the GQ France photo shoot of Nicolas Mahut and Paul-Henri Mathieu. As Courtney Nguyen recently put it, Mahut is the Job of tennis. The girl is always a few inches closer to Mathieu than to Mahut, so even in a fashion photo shoot, Mahut comes out as Job. Does he have an aura around him or does he have a permanent "Kick me!" sign on his back?
-- Ted Ying, Laurel, Md.

• Ha! Ted sent this a few days before Mahut won his first ATP title -- at age 31 -- last week, upsetting Stanislas Wawrinka in the final of the Topshelf Open in the Netherlands. Take it away, John Isner: "Congrats to @nmahut on his title in Holland! No one deserves it more than him. Well done!" (Mahut also won his first-round match at Wimbledon on Monday.)

This happens a lot: The events just before the Slams don't get much attention. Who had time for Simona Halep's winning back-to-back titles or Mahut's breakthrough when Serena and Maria are sniping about romances?

After LeBron's performance post-headband in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, is this proof that Federer needs to lose his head dress?
-- J, Portland

• Nice. I'll try to remember to ask him about this. On a serious note, it's interesting that Federer is entirely too rational for superstition.

Shots, Miscellany

• Man, tennis is a weird sport sometimes. Less than a week ago in the Netherlands, Isner lost to Evgeny Donskoy 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4. On Monday, the same two men met on the same surface and Isner won in straight sets.

• Monica (Yasiel?) Puig upset No. 5 Sara Errani in a Wimbledon opener. In her last two Slams, Errani was routed by Serena Williams in the French Open semifinals and sent packing by lunchtime on the first Monday in England.

• Patrick Kramer of Oslo, Norway: "During the rain delays of Queen's, our sports channel showed some old Wimbledon matches. I was particularly surprised to see Serena Williams 10 years ago. Much to my surprise, I agree totally with you that she has actually improved tremendously the past 10 years. I remember seeing her early on and thinking she was destined to be better than Venus. But the past year has been lights out. No matter how much I loathe her deportment. I have to take my hat off to the fact that she is the player of her generation. The past year (minus the 2012 French Open) ... best ever (don't tell anyone)."

• Ken Wells of Sigonella, Italy, has long-lost siblings: Milos Raonic and Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.

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