Less than a month ago, Rafael Nadal was celebrating one of the most significant accomplishments in tennis history on the clay courts of Roland Garros.
Three weeks later, he is history on the grass surface of Wimbledon after suffering the first Grand Slam opening-round loss of his amazing career on Monday.
Why the stunning reversal of fortune took place and what it means for Nadal heading into the 2013 hard-court season and the U.S. Open in late August are the two most pressing questions Rafa now must answer.
In one of the most unexpected upsets in recent Grand Slam history, Nadal was dropped by the 135th-ranked Steve Darcis in straight sets on Monday.
Making the result all the more improbable, it came just a little more than three weeks after Rafa became the first man to win eight times at a single slam with his victory at the 2013 French Open.
That triumph at Roland Garros capped an impressive comeback from a knee injury that kept Nadal out from July 2012 to this past February.
During the return from that extended furlough, Rafa reached the finals in all nine of his tournaments and won seven, capped by his straight sets triumph over David Ferrer at the French Open in early June. All told, Nadal entered the 2013 Wimbledon Championships on a 22-match winning streak and with significant claim to the title of best player in the world.
On Monday, that claim came crashing down.
The upset continued what has been a roller-coaster 12 months for the Spaniard since his second-round loss at the 2012 Wimbledon Championships, which would prove to be the final match of the year for Nadal.
This time around, Rafa fell 7-6(4), 7-6(8), 6-4 at the All England Club to the relatively unknown Belgian, ending his grass-court season dead in its tracks.
At the same time, the stunning setback raises the question as to whether his aggressive 2013 clay-court schedule and grueling run through the French Open simply took too much out of him in advance of Wimbledon, the third Grand Slam of the season.
All but one of those events, including the pressure-packed, seven-match French Open, took place on clay. Nadal tends to play longer, more intense points that take a significant toll physically and mentally on clay.
Following his epic triumph at the French Open, which included a grueling four-hour-plus, five-set battle with top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, Nadal took a much-needed and well-earned break from competition.
In fact, the toll of winning his eighth French Open was so taxing that Nadal opted not to play a Wimbledon warm-up in the AEGON International as he traditionally does. He came into the Wimbledon fortnight without a single match played on grass in just under a year.
The results of that schedule change were not very good, to say the least. It almost certainly played a role in costing Nadal a chance for a third title at the All England Club.
Despite the challenging spring slate on clay and the difficult but successful run through the French Open, Nadal showed little discomfort or anxiety with his health on Monday and wasn't about to point toward fatigue or a worn knee for his loss to Darcis.
"I don't...talk about my knee this afternoon," Nadal said to Stephen Wilson of the Associated Press. "Only thing that 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."
While not making excuses for his Wimbledon flameout is a good thing, Nadal must now look toward the future, which includes the final Grand Slam event of the year in just two months’ time.
Moving forward then, the core question is what Rafa's head-scratching loss means for his hopes to add another U.S. Open title to his 2013 French Open crown come September.
More than any of tennis’ top four stars, Nadal plays a taxing style of tennis with an aggressive, physical approach that tends to cause longer points and extended matches.
How his legs hold up as he moves from a one-stop grass court season to the demanding hard-court surface is going to be an interesting watch.
In the past, Nadal has taken a conservative approach to the hard-court season, playing only a couple tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open, which this year is slated to begin on August 26 at Flushing Meadows.
In 2011, the Spaniard played only twice leading up to the U.S. Open with rather limited results. Nadal lost to Ivan Dodig in his first match at the ATP Rogers Cup in Montreal and followed that up with a quarterfinals fall to American Marty Fish in Cincinnati a week later.
Yet despite those poor tune-ups, Nadal advanced to the finals of the U.S. Open several weeks later before losing to Djokovic in a four-set battle.
If there is a silver lining in Nadal’s early loss at Wimbledon, it’s the increased amount of time off to rest his weathered body and to prepare for the final months of the 2013 season.
Nadal could choose to add another tournament to his standard summer schedule—perhaps the Citi Open in Washington D.C. in late July—to help him fine-tune his ground strokes for the U.S. Open.
On the flip side, he could keep his standard schedule of two U.S. Open preps and simply use the extra time to rest his body and mind.
Whichever way Nadal chooses to go, there’s no question that he will arrive at the 2013 U.S. Open a focused and determined player. Although he has won 12 Grand Slams and is the undisputed King of Clay, Nadal hasn't been nearly as dominant at the U.S. Open.
His lone victory in the slam came in 2010 over Djokovic. His only other finals appearance came in the aforementioned loss to Novak in 2011.
Couple that history with the fact that Nadal has only a single title at the Australian Open, which is also played on a hard surface, and you have a rather sketchy tale of hard-court performances for Nadal as it relates to slams.
To be honest, considering the roller-coaster ride he’s been on since the 2012 Wimbledon, there’s really no telling what lies in wait for the talented Spaniard in the next two months.
What is certain, however, is the player we saw complete an amazing career milestone at the French Open is much closer to the true Rafa than the one who so surprisingly slipped away Monday at Wimbledon.
Time off to reflect, rest and prepare will serve Nadal well. We will see a much better and more prepared player at the 2013 U.S. Open. Perhaps by then, Nadal's roller-coaster season will be riding upward rather than its most recent straight dip down.
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