Rafael Nadal outdid expectations again on Wimbledon's opening day—this time in an ironic and more bitter way. In falling to the Belgian and 135th-ranked Steve Darcis in straight sets at the first hurdle, he suffered yet another stunning early exit from the grass court tournament a year after being felled by Lukas Rosol in the second round last year.
Darcis' victory over Nadal surely ranks as one of the Championships' most memorable upsets, along with the first-round exit of defending champions Manolo Santana in 1967, Lleyton Hewitt in 2002, and Peter Doohan's victory over Boris Becker in 1987. The last drew a philosophic comment from the German, "Nobody died. I only lost a tennis match, nothing more."
Rafael Nadal managed something nearly as memorable, saying, "This is a sport of victories, not of losses."
Nadal's surprising repeat of 2012 failure—surpassing it in failure, actually, as he will lose the meagre 45 ranking points he achieved last year—has naturally sparked the usual rumours. The knees failed him; the eight month hiatus has ruined his career irreparably; he has lost some of his mojo; and from some quarters, he may never win Wimbledon again.
The doomsday predictions and ill-mongering aside, we need to consider some facts. Nadal has had a tremendous 2013, having won seven of the 10 tournaments he has entered, and has come off a 22-match winning streak and an eighth French Open title. In Paris he outlasted the world No. 1 in a grueling four-and-a-half hour semifinal and still had plenty left in the tank for arguably the second-best clay-courter around, David Ferrer. It would be hard to brush aside allegations that he played without confidence.
Nor is the emphasis on his knees entirely pertinent. It has become the first calling card for any shocking Nadal loss, and the journalist who had the temerity to ask Nadal if his defeat was attributable to them received a perceptibly agitated riposte, "I think is not the day to talk about these kind of things."
It would be more relevant to note that Nadal has historically struggled at Wimbledon, for all his status as a two-time champion and five-time finalist; especially in the first week at the All-England Club when the turf is fresh and an even playing field. In 2003 and 2005, he did not get past the third round, and even in the two years when he was runner-up in 2006 and 2007, he had to fight through three five-setters in the first four rounds combined.
He dropped only a set en route to the title in 2008 (arguably his annus mirabilis) and likewise in 2011 (also arguably one of his best seasons, despite coming off second best to Novak Djokovic for much of it). Even when he claimed the title in 2010 he had to fight back from two sets to one down twice in a row.
Then, of course, we need now to add his stunning loss to Rosol in five sets last year, and this defeat to Darcis in straight sets.
The signs in this last match pointed toward a slight uneasiness in general about his first match on grass. He slipped, lost his balance at moments and lacked the precise preparation on his footwork for many crucial forehands. Nadal, for all his greatness, might not have the hit-and-miss, go-for-broke attitude others have that might have gotten them out of a similar sticky situation.
Maybe Nadal's ever-so-slight degree of tentativeness yesterday and eventual loss might be explained by uneasy knees. Yet, it can also be explained by an opponent with the opposite attitude, and the general aleatory nature of the first week at Wimbledon.