Nadal Out of Wimbledon

June 24, 2013 -- Rafael Nadal lost in the first round of Wimbledon today, sending shockwaves throughout the sports world. This was his first loss in an opening round of a Major in 35 appearances. 

Steve Darcis of Belgium was the dragon slayer. Ranked #135, he upset the No. 5 seed 76(5) 76(8) 64. 

The undoing of the two-time Wimbledon champion launched massive amounts of speculation from fans and pundits. Nadal came to Wimbledon having won his 8th Roland Garros title two weeks ago, and touting a stellar 43-2 record for the year. He had won 7 titles in 9 finals -- every tournament he had entered. 

"Nobody was expecting my win today. Rafa didn't play his best match today," Darcis said upon leaving Centre Court, according to tennis correspondent Barry Flatman of The Sunday Times.

In his press conference, Nadal would not allow reporters to dive into their curiosity about his physical conditions. The direction was a natural course for media because they witnessed a tentative Nadal, a man known for his exhausting style of play pull back when a ball landed within running distance. And they saw him limp and grab his knees. 

"Is not the right day," Nadal began. "I tried my best out there in every moment. Was not possible for me this afternoon, and that's all."

Several attempted to compare today's upset to his loss to Lukas Rosol in the second round last year, when Nadal freely admitted he hurt. But as another query arose, this one about his movement, Nadal had had it, saying, "I think you are joking." 

Nadal withdrew from one of the three warm-up grass court tournaments immediately following Roland Garros. He was exhausted. Had he played in Halle at The Gerry Webber Open, his preparation for grass would have been sharper.

"So in grass is difficult to adapt yourself, to adapt your game," he said. "When you don't have the chance to play before. I didn't have that chance this year, is tougher. I didn't find my rhythm."

However, he has struggled in opening rounds against players outside the elite level. 

In 2010, the year he won his second Wimbledon title, Nadal labored for five sets before getting past unseeded Robin Haase in the second round. In the third he battled Philipp Petzschner in another five-set contest. American and perennial qualifier Robbie Kendrick was up two-sets on Nadal in 2006, yet the Spaniard fought back to win. That, too, came in the second round. Since his first appearance at Wimbledon in 2003, Nadal has only lost in the first, second or third rounds. He is undefeated in rounds four through the semifinals. 

The grass, though, has a special quality in the opening days. It is more slick, especially if rain has dampened the air. 

Victoria Azarenka went down hard this morning after launching a serve. She screamed in pain. After a thorough exam her right knee was bandaged to the point it looked like a mummy. She returned to win the match against Maria Joao Koehler, 61 62, but still faced medical tests. 

"It's so shocking because you have no ground," Azarenka told the press. "You basically just fall. You know, your legs go one way, and there is no balance or nothing I could control."

As the fortnight progresses, the grass dries and the baseline turns to a well-pounded dirt patch. It is not slippery. Given how aggressively Nadal plays and the lower stance he must take on grass, his discomfort could have caused him to play more conservatively, which then rattled his confidence.  

"I have doubts on grass," Nadal began. "I have doubts on clay and hard, for sure indoor [hard]. If I don't have doubts is because I really don't feel the passion for this game. Today I play with doubts. I lost, yes." 

Nadal also admitted that red clay adapted better to his game and that grass was "probably the toughest surface for me because I have to play in a lower position than in the rest of the surfaces."

Darcis, though, played the match of his life. He won on his 13th ace and stood toe-to-toe with Nadal through two tight sets. Nadal served for the second set at 6-5, but Darcis broke to force the tiebreak. The Belgian then broke Nadal in his first game of the last set. 

Roger Federer, the projected opponent for Nadal in next week's quarterfinal, danced through his match against Romanian Victor Hanuescu, 63 62 60, in less than 90 minutes. Andy Murray, too, had a straight set win over Benjamin Becker. Asked about Nadal's loss, Murray said, "That happens. That's sport." The third member of the Big Four, Novak Djokovic, plays tomorrow.

On the women's side, No. 5 seed Sara Errani lost to upstart Monica Puig 62 62. Errani was the highest woman's seed to exit the iron gates of the All England Club today. She has never advanced beyond the third round in singles at Wimbledon but has made the quarterfinals in doubles. Errani and Roberta Vinci are the world's No. 1 doubles team. 

Rafael Nadal left the press optimistic about his return, saying that it wouldn't be as late as last year, "I am confident that I will have a good recover and be ready for the next tournaments."

Always the man not to make excuses, Nadal wanted Darcis to feel his accomplishment. "Just congratulate Darcis. I think he played with the right decision, played well, and that's all."

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013