Fresh off his ninth French Open championship in the last decade, you'd think this would be the perfect time for Rafael Nadal to quell concerns about his grass-court performance.
You'd think wrong.
Dustin Brown shocked everyone at the Gerry Weber Open on Thursday, ousting the world No. 1 in straight sets in their second-round match. Nadal was frankly rendered fangless by Brown, currently the No. 85 player in the world. The 29-year-old German, getting his career first crack at Nadal, broke him in the first set 6-4 and then wiped the floor with the Spaniard in a 6-1 second-set romp.
“Difficult to talk about the match, I don’t know what to say. I didn’t play,” Nadal told reporters. "It can happen on this surface against such a opponent. This match has no value preparing for Wimbledon but the match was negative in all ways."
Brown won 83 percent of his first-serve points and overpowered Nadal to the tune of 11 aces. It was stunning to see Nadal look so hapless less than a week after he regained his footing atop the tennis world. The clay-court season had been perhaps Nadal's worst of his prime, and the title at Roland Garros seemingly righted the ship.
Concern is understandable. It might even be warranted.
But before hands start wringing about Nadal's tenuous grip on the "world's best" mantle, heed one request: Chill.
Yes, Nadal had momentum after his French Open win. He was also just four days removed from kissing the clay at Roland Garros. In the days since, Nadal had to travel from Paris to Germany and prepare to play on a wildly different surface. Working on a combination of jet lag, physical exhaustion and the general difficulty of playing Brown for the first time while in his home country is one hell of a recipe for an upset.
If anything, an early exit might prove beneficial in the long term. Nadal dealt with a back injury off and on throughout the French Open, particularly in his fourth-round win over Leonardo Mayer. The grimaces came and went after that match, and no formal diagnosis was given. It's possible he was dealing with just general soreness, but back injuries are like knees in that you can never be too careful.
Wimbledon starts on June 23. Taking what amounts to an 11-day break from competitive tennis might have even been the advisable route. Few are expressing any concern about Andy Murray, himself the victim of an upset by Radek Stepanek at the Aegon Championships. Murray, a semifinalist in Paris, will attempt to go back-to-back at Wimbledon a year after breaking Great Britain's 77-year drought at the All England Club.
Which is exactly where the concern comes in.
Murray has a recent track record of clay-court success. Nadal has barely even played on grass over the last two full calendar years. As Chris Chase of USA Today pointed out Thursday, beginning with the 2012 Wimbledon tournament, Nadal has played four competitive matches on grass.
He's lost the last three. Lukas Rosol knocked him out at Wimbledon in 2012, which would become his last competitive match of that season due to knee tendinitis. Nadal did not play in any tune-up events on grass last season and was eliminated by Steve Darcis in Round 1. On Thursday, Brown completed the Unholy Trinity.
Brown, Rosol and Darcis were each ranked No. 85 or worse when they took down the Spaniard. While each can be written off as an anomaly in their own way—Brown and Darcis due to exhaustion, Rosol due to injury—they create an interesting storyline heading into the year's third Slam.
Grass has never been Nadal's favorite surface. He tried for years in vain to unseat Roger Federer from his throne at the All England Club. He finally got over the hump in 2008 and 2010, but that's before the injuries began piling up. Grass courts are the fastest surfaces on tour. They require quick-twitch movement because of the lower trajectory of the ball, whereas clay slows down the ball and allows for the insane chase-down returns Nadal hangs his hat on.
"Things on this surface right now aren't going as well as on other surfaces," Toni Nadal, Rafael's coach and uncle, told reporters after his Wimbledon loss last year. "It is true that his movement wasn't good and that everything is a little bit more difficult."
Is Rafael Nadal still capable of being an elite grass-court player?
Toni Nadal also criticized his nephew's poor attitude playing on grass. Rafael's attitude did not seem much better going into Halle, where he all but admitted to reporters he thought he was going to lose—though I doubt he meant in the first round.
Maybe, having just turned 28, Nadal's body is no longer built to withstand the punishment of a grass surface. The combination of lateral quickness and torque constantly being placed on Nadal's legs cannot be healthy. Long-standing knee injuries lie in dormancy waiting to crop back up at the worst moment. Nadal will never have the same quickness he did at age 22 and 24, the years he won his two Wimbledon crowns.
In the micro, Nadal's loss to Brown means nothing. It's a meaningless defeat in a meaningless tournament that 95 percent of the population doesn't even know exists. It'll be in the ether come the weekend.
In the macro, Nadal's loss exposes the question that's been left unanswered since 2010: Can this Rafael Nadal still win on grass?
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