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Steve Flink: Insanity on Centre Court

6/29/2012 1:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—It has been about thirteen hours since Rafael Nadal bowed out of this tournament, falling in five tumultuous sets to an other-worldly Lukas Rosol by scores of 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 on the same Centre Court where the Spaniard has twice captured the game’s centerpiece event. In my mind, this is clearly the most significant upset at Wimbledon in the game’s modern history. Seven time champion Pete Sampras losing in the second round to lucky loser George Bastl of Switzerland out on the lonely Court 2 in 2002 was nearly as astonishing. Defending champion Lleyton Hewitt was ushered out in the opening round a year later, served off the court by the towering 6’10” Ivo Karlovic. Two time defending champion Boris Becker was halted inconceivably by the solid yet unexceptional Australian Peter Doohan in 1987, and Andre Agassi—the 1992 champion—was stymied in the first round by countryman Doug Flach in 1996.

But I place Nadal’s defeat yesterday at the top of shockers list because he is so rarely prone to upsets of any magnitude. The last time he lost as early as the second round at a major was here in 2005, courtesy of the left-hander Gilles Muller. Frankly, Nadal—despite capturing his first French Open a few weeks earlier on his beloved clay—was still an unseasoned and strikingly vulnerable player on the grass seven years ago. Since that time, Nadal has been a pillar of consistency on the lawns of the All England Club, reaching the final in 2006 before losing to Roger Federer in four sets, pushing the Swiss Maestro into a fifth set in the 2007 final, taking the title with an epic five set masterpiece against Federer in 2008, and reclaiming his crown in 2010 after skipping the tournament with ailing knees the previous season. A year ago, Nadal was runner-up to Novak Djokovic.

Nadal has been at least a finalist in his last five appearances at the Kentucky Derby of tennis. There was every reason to believe that this year he would either travel back to the title round, or secure the crown for the third time. Yesterday’s contest with Rosol was presumed to be merely a formality. Rosol is ranked No. 100 in the world. Across his entire career, the 26-year-old from the Czech Republic had hardly distinguished himself in the big leagues of tennis. His career match match record heading into his appointment with Nadal was an abysmal 19-32. At the Grand Slam events, he had lost five of nine matches. He had been beaten in the first round of the qualifying at Wimbledon every year from 2007-2011, and this was the first time he had ever appeared in the main draw.

To be sure, Rosol did achieve a respectable win in the first round a few days ago, toppling the Croatian Ivan Dodig in four sets. Dodig had stunned Nadal last summer at Montreal. But, despite that hard fought, first round win over Dodig, Rosol seemed certain to be taken apart by a methodical Nadal. The Spaniard never takes anyone lightly. His modesty and professionalism are ever present traits. That is why the Spaniard has been so unfailingly consistent—he refuses to inflate his own ego or underestimate any opponent. Every match he plays is deadly serious for a champion who leaves no stone unturned whenever he approaches the competitive battlefield.

So what in the world happened? How did Nadal not account for such an unaccomplished opponent? The answers are simultaneously simple yet complicated. Ultimately, Rosol turned into somebody much larger than himself. He played most of the match in an unconscious state, swinging away with reckless abandon, pulling off crackling forehand winners every which way, drilling his flat two-handed backhand crosscourt with immense power, and serving stupendously through almost the entire contest. Rosol’s eerily calm demeanor, his obliviousness to the moment or the situation, and his determination to keep going for nearly impossible shots and making them time and again—this was nothing short of stupendous.

But Nadal contributed decidedly to his own demise with listlessness during some stretches and inordinate anxiety at other times. His apprehension throughout the match—with the notable exception of the fourth set—was very costly. The supreme power, depth, and audacity of his unconscious adversary’s shot making unnerved Nadal in many ways, and the Spaniard was far too defensive, passive to the point of self-destruction. Rosol, meanwhile, was playing like a madman; it was as simple as that. The first signs of jeopardy for Nadal came in the opening set. The Spaniard had broken to establish a 3-2 lead. Serving in the sixth game, Nadal faltered badly, committing three forehand unforced errors and losing his serve.

Rather than being on his way to a routine first set triumph and perhaps taking control of the match, Nadal hit a bad patch, lost considerable confidence off the ground, and found himself in an unexpectedly difficult battle. Rosol reached set point on Nadal’s serve with the No. 2 seed serving at 5-6, but the Spaniard came through with a 130 MPH ace down the T in the Ad Court, and held on for 6-6. Nadal was lucky to get out unscathed from that sequence. He saved two more set points in the tie-break—both on his own serve—and captured three points in a row from 8-9 down to take that set. He sealed it when he chipped a backhand return short off a 129 MPH booming delivery from Rosol. Rosol pressed, missing a forehand into the net.

Nadal is such a formidable front runner that he seemed certain to win despite his ragged first set play. He had not lost a match at a Grand Slam event after taking the first set since his round of 16 contest against David Ferrer in 2007 at the U.S. Open. But everything went terribly wrong again in the opening game of the second set. He lost his serve at love, double faulting wide on break point. He reached break point in the second game, but Rosol wiped it away ruthlessly with an ace out wide in the Ad Court at 124 MPH. Thereafter, Rosol was unstoppable, his serve an increasing burden on Nadal’s psyche, his confidence growing. In his last four service games of the second set, Rosol conceded only five points. Nadal could not read his opponent’s delivery in the least. At 5-4, 30-15, Rosol aced Nadal wide in the Ad Court at 126 MPH, then aced him down the T at 133 MPH. With those two swings of the racket, it was one set all.

At 1-1 in the third, Nadal drifted once more into a precarious place. The depth of Rosol’s returns was too much for the Spaniard, who fell behind 0-40. Nadal rallied to 30-40, only to drive a forehand into the net. That glaring unforced error was critical. Nadal had lost his serve early in a set again, and Rosol was not going to let him get away with it. Rosol by now was serving with vigor, authority, great disguise, and easy rhythm. His first serve variation was magnificent, and Nadal was at bay. Moreover, there was nowhere for Nadal to go in the baseline exchanges. Rosol was devastatingly potent and unerring off the forehand, and his two-hander crosscourt was putting Nadal uncomfortably on the run. Rosol never came close to getting broken in the third set, taking that chapter 6-4, moving ahead two sets to one. He had not been broken since the fifth game of the first set. He was confounding Nadal by going down the T with his first serve in the Deuce Court, swinging the slice serve wide on that side to keep his opponent honest. In the Ad Court, Rosol’s flat serve wide to Nadal’s forehand was outstanding.

But at last Nadal came alive early in the fourth set. The Spaniard released a pair of aces in a love game, holding for 2-1. Rosol held easily for 2-2, but then Nadal elevated his play significantly, holding at 15 for 3-2. With Rosol serving at 2-3, Nadal emphatically made his move. A brilliant backhand down the line lob into the wind forced Rosol to retreat, and Rosol was coaxed into a mistake. That took Nadal to 15-40, and then he broke on the next point when Nadal increased the pace off his forehand crosscourt, drawing an error from his adversary. An exhilarated Nadal broke for 4-2, and held at 15 for 5-2. With Rosol serving in the eighth game, Nadal reached 30-40 with some superior defense, and then stepped into a backhand down the line and cracked it flat with all of his might. That dazzling winner gave Nadal the set.

He had won four straight games, raising his level of aggression off both sides impressively, finally seizing the initiative. Nadal clearly had momentum on his side of the net. But at 8: 48 in the evening, the players left the court after that fourth set while the roof was raised over Centre Court as the skied darkened. They did not return to the court until 9: 21, and the match resumed at 9:31. That 43 minute delay was the worst possible development for Nadal. He had benefitted enormously from his rain delayed match with Novak Djokovic in the final of the French Open. Djokovic had won eight games in a row from to go ahead 2-0 in the fourth set before Nadal held on in the third game. Stopping at that juncture and having a night to sleep on it was a boost to Nadal, who came back to win the fourth set the following day to claim his men’s record seventh French Open crown.

But this time, the delay hindered him. He played a very disappointing opening game of the fifth set, miss-hitting a backhand out on the first point, falling behind 0-30, then coming back to 30-30. But his passivity had returned. At 30-30, Nadal could not handle the heat of Rosol’s crosscourt forehand, and the Spaniard sliced a backhand long. At break point down, Nadal played an abysmal point. He was set up for an aggressive forehand from short range, but inexplicably sent his approach down the middle, allowing Rosol to lace a forehand pass crosscourt to take the point. Rosol had the immediate break for 1-0, and Nadal was wounded irrevocably.

Nadal had revealed his insecurity with that poor opening service game. But he could not have anticipated that Rosol would blaze through that set on serve in a world of his own, drilling every forehand with awesome pace and accuracy, serving with spectacular speed and unanswerable conviction. Rosol took his first two service games of that fifth set at the cost of only three points, but from that juncture he was fearsome. Nadal could hardly believe his eyes. Thunder was coming his way ceaselessly. Although Nadal kept holding on obstinately—including from 0-30 at 2-4—Rosol was playing the game of tennis as if he owned it. No one in the world could have stayed with him. He had reinvented himself just for this one match and one moment against an all-time great. And his level of play in the fifth set was beyond reason; the man was in some kind of bizarre altered state, blasting away on every shot with complete relaxation, serving rhythmically and overpoweringly, hardly blinking an eye. At 3-2, he charged to 30-0, aced Nadal down the T at 130 MPH, and then aced him out wide at 125 MPH. At 4-3, he aced Nadal wide in the Deuce Court for 15-0, aced him down the T for 40-0, and held at love with a blinding forehand winner. Most improbably of all, serving for the match at 5-4, he held at love with a 132 MPH ace down the T, an inside out forehand winner, a 134 MPH ace down the T, and a 129 MPH ace out wide. In his last three service games, he did not lose a point, connecting with eleven of twelve first serves, sending out seven of his 22 aces in that unimaginable span.

Rosol had recorded a 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 triumph, leaving Nadal and everyone else dazed and bewildered. There was no reasonable explanation for what he had done. I have never seen a player of his ilk, in the middle of his twenties, a career journeyman, suddenly stepping up to win a match of this importance. In fact, I have not seen anything remotely like it. What he did bordered on temporary insanity.

Meanwhile, there was some controversy surrounding the match. Rosol claimed that Nadal was trying to disrupt his concentration by bumping into him at a changeover, but acknowledged that Nadal apologized to him three times about the incident. Rosol was asked by the media to comment and he spoke with no hard edge or resentment. But Nadal was definitely agitated by Rosol’s return of serve posture, irked that his opponent kept moving around to distract him. To be sure, that was gamesmanship. To his credit, Nadal would not address that issue after the match. “It’s not the right moment for me to say, “he answered, “because gonna sound like an excuse and I never want to put an excuse after a match like today.”

Rosol conceded about his win that “I mean, I didn’t expect it. But I played relaxed you know. Sometimes I wake up and I can beat anyone. Some days I know I can lose to player at No. 500. I need to keep going at the same level.”

He is right about that. But his career has been essentially about losing. He has never even approached the form he displayed against Nadal across five sets at the game’s most prestigious tournament. Where did it come from? How could a 26-year-old player of mediocrity summon that kind of greatness? I don’t have the answers, and no one else does either. But I don’t expect Rosol to back this up. I believe this was a once in a lifetime moment, and he seized it, much to the dismay of an understandably befuddled Nadal, who had never played Rosol before. This was, as they say, a “one off.”

As for Nadal, how will he respond? It could be a tough summer ahead for him. He will have some time to rest before the Olympic Games commence back at Wimbledon in late July, but this loss will be terribly deflating. He has not lost prior to the quarterfinals at a major since Robin Soderling handed him a round of 16 defeat at Roland Garros three years ago. Nadal will surely lose his No. 2 world ranking after Wimbledon, and it could be a rough stretch ahead for the Spaniard. He needs a strong showing at the Olympic Games—at least a final round appearance—to restore some of his self-belief. He was soaring after Paris, but this is a rude awakening for a proud yet realistic man. Just when he seemed to be moving back to his 2010 form, Nadal has suffered one of the most jarring defeats of his entire career.

And yet, of this much I am certain: there will be no long term damage for Rafael Nadal. He will get his bearings back again. He is made of the toughest mental stock I have seen from any player. He happened to be the victim of one of the most freakishly brilliant performances in my lifetime. Nadal will suffer perhaps some short term damage to his morale, but over the long run he will put this behind him. Meanwhile, Wimbledon 2012 will be a strange and lesser place in many ways without Nadal out there among us.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He was a columnist and editor for World Tennis Magazine from 1974-91. Starting in 1992, he was a senior correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine. During the 1970's and 1980's he served as a statistician for NBC, CBS and ABC on their tennis telecasts. Since 1982 he has been covering Wimbledon and the French Open for CBS radio. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.