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Steve Flink: Lightning strikes twice against Nadal

6/25/2013 1:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—A year ago, when Rafael Nadal headed out onto the fabled lawns here at the All England Club, those of us who value history deeply were expecting the dynamic Spaniard to make another long run at the tournament that matters more than any other in the sport. In his previous five appearances between 2006 and 2011, Nadal had demonstrated irrefutably that he can play the game magnificently on the grass. In that stretch, he was runner-up twice against Roger Federer in 2006 and 2007, dropping the latter final in five enthralling sets. Then he captured the title in 2008 with a final round victory over Federer in a meeting most authorities believe is the best contest that has ever been waged. After missing the event in 2009 with a knee injury, he reclaimed the crown in 2010 before bowing in the 2011 final against a virtually flawless Novak Djokovic.

That is some kind of grass court record. In those five years, Nadal was never less than a finalist, twice a champion, always competing ferociously and raising his level of play decidedly over the course of those fortnights. But then he was upended last year in a startling second round, five set match by Lukas Rosol, who was ranked No. 100 in the world at the time. Rosol, quite simply, played out of his mind, especially in the fifth set when he served prodigiously and blasted Nadal right off the court under the roof.

We all know what happened after that. Nadal—who made no excuses for that stunning upset—was gone from the game for seven months. His knee, of course, was the problem. But his comeback this year has been nothing less than spectacular. From his return in February through the French Open, Nadal secured seven titles in nine tournaments, reached two other finals, and the triumph at Roland Garros was his eighth. To be sure, eight of those nine tournaments were on clay, where he can slide, scramble, set the strategic agenda and play the game largely on his own terms. But the fact remains that he won Indian Wells on hard courts as well.

All through that immensely successful period, Nadal, with few exceptions, refused to talk about his knee. There were days when he seemed to be hindered and below par, moments when he wore an expression that seemed to reveal suffering and pain, times when the knee appeared to be acting up. But he plodded on in his typically professional and classy way. When he spoke to the media after clipping David Ferrer in the final of Roland Garros, Nadal was asked about his withdrawal from the grass court event in Halle the following week. Clearly, he was unhappy about breaking an old routine. Always he had eased the surface transition from clay to grass by playing a Wimbledon warm-up tournament on the lawns.

Make no mistake about it: Nadal is a creature of habit, a fellow determined to prepare meticulously for every big challenge, an obstinate individual who follows a plan and sticks with it to the hilt. At the time, I thought he was being too finicky about missing Halle. I believed he would adjust to only practicing for Wimbledon this year rather than playing matches in an official tournament. But Nadal surely paid a price for doing the sensible thing and listening to the doctors who told him he needed rest after the long season on clay. Yesterday, he was ushered out of a Grand Slam event in the opening round for the first time in his career. This was his 35th major, but out he went against none other than Steve Darcis, a 29-year-old Belgian ranked No. 135 in the world. Darcis, by the way, has never moved higher than No. 44. His career match record is a mediocre 72-80.

This may have been a bigger upset in some ways than Nadal’s astounding departure a year ago against Rosol. Darcis is a cagey, well-rounded, first rate player on the grass. His only previous win over a top ten player was here at Wimbledon in the Olympic Games last summer, when he toppled Tomas Berdych. Darcis came to Wimbledon with a dismal 2-6 match record for 2013. He had lost in the first round of the Australian Open, falling in the qualifying at Indian Wells, Miami, and Monte Carlo, bowing in the opening round of the main draw at Roland Garros. Who could have anticipated that this journeyman could even dream of ousting Nadal at the world’s premier tennis tournament?

But Darcis did just that. I flew over from New York while the match was being played, and heard the news from customs officials when I landed in London. I told them I was here for Wimbledon, and they said, “Have you heard? Nadal’s out!” At first, I thought they were kidding, but then I realized they were absolutely serious. I have since reviewed the details of the Belgian’s 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4 triumph over Nadal, and the most surprising thing to me is that Nadal did not show his usual propensity to play the big points with conviction.

He fought of eight of nine break points in the opening set. Darcis served for that set at 6-5 but Nadal broke back to set up a tie-break. But Darcis took that sequence comfortably enough. Nadal rallied from 1-3 to 3-3, but lost four of the next five points. Down a set, Nadal went to work, and broke to move ahead 6-5 in the second. But he did not serve it out. In the ensuing tie-break, Nadal fought back from triple set point down at 3-6 and had a set point with Darcis serving at 7-8, but once more the Spaniard lost his way. Darcis took that tie-break 10-8, and then broke Nadal for a 2-0 third set lead. He never looked back.

By all accounts, Nadal was hobbled to a large degree from the early stages of the third set until the end. To be sure, the slicker conditions early in the tournament have never suited Nadal compared to the way the courts play during the second week; the footing is not as good, the ball does not come up as much, and the left-hander can have problems with his timing, execution and court positioning on the pristine grass. But the fact remains that he met that challenge ably across the prime of his career until the last two years.

In any case, Nadal went out of his way after the match to not talk about any ailments, to give full credit to Darcis, to refuse any invitation to make excuses. That was keeping in character for this dignified man who has been an exemplary loser as well as a gracious winner. He said, “One thing that I can say today is congratulate Steve Darcis. He played a fantastic match. Everything that I will say today about my knee is an excuse, and I don’t like to put any excuse when I’m losing a match like I lost today. He deserve not one excuse.”

Nadal was asked to assess his schedule in terms of protecting his knee and maximizing his opportunities. He responded, “I cannot predict the future. I cannot say when I do a calendar if it was wrong or it was positive. Since six hours ago it was a perfect calendar, now is a negative calendar. That’s not true. I played as I said since I came back when I have the feeling I can play. And my feelings were that I played the weeks that I felt right to play. I try to arrive at Wimbledon as good as possible for this tournament, knowing that this year will be harder than ever, and it really was. The calendar was for me pefect, winning seven tournaments of the nine, and playing two finals.... My season has been fantastic, much better than what I thought five months ago. I know that the loss of today can happen, and it happened. That’s all.”

The 27-year-old Spaniard explained that these days grass is perhaps his hardest challenge, saying, “It is probably the toughest surface for me today, because I have to move and play in a lower position than the other surfaces.”

And so Nadal is gone, leaving much too early from the shrine of the sport, making his many boosters wonder how long he will have to stay away from competition before he can compete again at a lofty level. He was adamant that he won’t be out of circulation for anywhere near as long as he was this past year, but that remains to be seen. As difficult as it may be for Nadal to bend for low balls on grass and thus test the durability of his knee completely, it will be no facile task for the Spaniard to play the way he wants during the hard court season either. That is a very punishing surface. But the feeling grows that he must find a way to get back on the ATP World Tour over the summer, to play one or preferably two tournaments before the U.S. Open, and then come to New York fully committed to winning a second title in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

In retrospect, perhaps Nadal should not have played Wimbledon this year. He may have been asking too much of himself. When he returned to the tour in February, he had no way of knowing that he would capture seven of nine events. He did not realize he would play so many taxing matches in such a compressed period of time. He came into Wimbledon with a 43-2 match record (including 22 wins in a row) for the year. That was a lot of tennis in essentially four months, and the enormity of that effort caught up with him. The hope here is that he will recuperate swiftly and resume his winning ways as fast as possible. But it just might be that Nadal will have to step aside soon—perhaps in the autumn—and have surgery on the knee. That might be the only way he can avoid all of this disruption in his career.

All I know is this: the game needs Nadal in the forefront as much, if not more, than Nadal needs the game. He is a singularly arresting character, a fighter of the first magnitude, a man of many virtues. Just when we were getting used to having him back out among us in the tennis universe, there is genuine cause for concern that he may need to disappear once more for a long while to mend his knee. Let’s hope that he quickly heals because the game of tennis suffers immeasurably when he isn’t around.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. 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.