Breaking Down Rafael Nadal's Grass Court Struggles in Wake of Wimbledon Upset

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Breaking Down Rafael Nadal's Grass Court Struggles in Wake of Wimbledon Upset
Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

It happened again.

Two of the biggest upsets in Wimbledon history have come in the last two years. Both of them were over Rafael Nadal

Last year, the big-hitting but erratic Lukas Rosol took out Nadal in five sets in the second round. It was a phenomenal roller-coaster of a match with moments of greatness from both men. The fifth set was chill-inducing tennis from start to finish.

This year was different. Nadal lost in straight sets to Steve Darcis, a 29-year-old Belgian player ranked No. 135 in the world. Nadal didn't look much like himself at all.

The man of the hour, Darcis only has two main-draw wins on the ATP World Tour this year. His best win of the year before Monday was over No. 35 Lukas Rosol in a clay-court Challenger.

Darcis is not a nobody. He beat Tomas Berdych last year at the Olympics, which were also played at Wimbledon. He has two career ATP titles, one on indoor hard courts in Memphis and one on clay in Amersfoort. He has a respectable career-high ranking of No. 44. Darcis played brilliant tennis today and should be given full credit for seizing his chances.

But he is not supposed to be able to beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

Nadal has a 50-12 record on grass courts. He has three grass court titles, two of them at Wimbledon. He has made the Wimbledon final five times. He has beaten Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at Wimbledon. Wimbledon has been by far his best slam outside of Roland Garros, which is incredible considering the tournaments are only two weeks apart.

However, the last two years, Nadal has only won two matches on grass, with one coming at Wimbledon.

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, after his shocking loss to Rosol, Nadal took seven months off of the tennis tour to rehab his troubled left knee. Since coming back on tour in February, he has been on a tear. He's won six titles on clay and one on hard courts and came into Wimbledon on a 22-match winning streak.

Heading into the fortnight, it looked like he was back to being prime-time Rafa. He looked injury-free and unstoppable. 

That obviously wasn't the case.

It was clear while watching the match today that Nadal was not 100 percent. He had trouble changing directions. He did not run all-out for every ball like he usually does. He ran around his backhand. He limped. 

Though he refused to use his injury as an excuse for the loss, the reality of the situation was clear. 

Before the French Open, the New York Times did an interactive video diagram about the impact that Nadal's playing style has on his troubled left knee. Though it didn't seem to effect him much on clay, it certainly did on grass.

Nadal himself has admitted that although grass is a surface he has loved in the past, it gives him the most trouble these days. He has to bend down low to adapt to the bounce, which is hard on his knees.

This is nothing new. The first week of Wimbledon has always been a struggle for Nadal, even when he was in peak condition. Players such as Robert Kendrick, Robin Haase, Robin Soderling and Philipp Petzschner have pushed him to five sets during the first week before. 

By the second week, when the courts are more worn in and the ball bounces higher, Nadal is usually much more himself.

Pool/Getty Images
Nadal holding his first Wimbledon trophy in 2008.

Unfortunately, the last two years, he hasn't been able to fight through the tough early round matches. He can't dig his way out of the bad days. His knee just isn't able to give him the time he needs to adapt to the surface change.

In 2015, there will be an extra week of grass-court season added between the French Open and Wimbledon, which will definitely help him out. But it might not be enough to really make a difference. It is quite possible that Nadal's best days at Wimbledon are behind him.

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Nadal will never really dial back on his clay court schedule, since that is the most successful part of the year for him. He will always come into Wimbledon with a lot of tennis miles under his belt. The grass in the first week will not get any less pristine and the bounce won't get any higher.

And unfortunately, it doesn't seem like his left knee is going to get a whole lot better. There will be good days, sure. He'll continue to get new treatment and learn new ways to manage the pain. Still, it is always going to be a factor.

Nadal's ability to succeed on the grass has always been one of the most impressive things about him. The past two years doesn't change that.

But it does signal that his days of grass-court greatness might be over for good. 

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