Rafael Nadal used to be almost as reliable at Wimbledon as he is at the French Open. The two-time Wimbledon champion once made five straight Wimbledon finals in six years, only skipping 2009 when he withdrew from the tournament.
Right now, that feels like a lifetime ago.
Nadal lost before the quarterfinals at Wimbledon for the third straight year on Tuesday, falling to 19-year-old Aussie Nick Kyrgios, ranked No. 144, 7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-3.
Since 2012, the 2008 and 2010 Wimbledon champion is merely 5-5 on grass courts. In addition to three trips to Wimbledon, that tally includes two trips to the Wimbledon tune-up in Halle, where he has never won back-to-back matches.
The Spaniard hasn't exactly been losing to titans of the game, either. His three most recent losses at Wimbledon have come to players with an average ranking of 126. That's pretty shocking for the world No. 1.
After this loss, Nadal did his best to keep perspective.
Considering Nadal lost in the second round to No. 100 Lukas Rosol two years ago and in the first round to No. 135 Steve Darcis last year, media and fans seemed convinced that Nadal would be fine this year if he only made it past the first week.
After all, every time Nadal had made it past the third round at The Championships, he'd found himself in the final.
But Kyrgios destroyed that myth on Tuesday, with a breakthrough performance that will turn the Australian wild card into one of the hottest prospects on the ATP World Tour.
In his Wimbledon debut, Kyrgios was already playing on borrowed time heading into this fourth-round encounter. He saved nine match points in his second-round battle against No. 13 Richard Gasquet, then beat fellow up-and-comer Jiri Vesely in four sets in the third round.
Though he was the big underdog, Kyrgios clearly went out on court against Nadal feeling like he could win the match. He used his best weapon—his serve—to his advantage, serving 37 aces and only four double faults. At 6'4", Kyrgios simply hit Nadal off of the court, powering 70 winners and 31 unforced errors.
He even showed his versatility when he hit one of the shots of the tournament.
Other teenagers have looked impressive on the big stage before, but they usually walk away with only a moral victory.
Kyrgios wasn't having any of that, though. Even after Nadal evened things up by taking the second set, the Australian stayed calm, focused and confident.
He got an early break in the fourth set, then coolly served it out to love, finishing his titanic upset with an ace.
As Chris Chase of USA Today's For the Win points out, this particular loss might have said more about Kyrgios than Nadal:
Nadal’s recent struggles on grass have been well documented. He was 0-3 in his last three grass matches entering Wimbledon and struggled in each of his three wins prior to Tuesday. Still, like those other matches, no one saw this coming.
But unlike the 2012 defeat to Lukas Rosol (No. 100) and the 2013 upset by Steve Darcis (No. 125), this wasn’t a journeyman scoring the upset of his life. It was the arrival of a star-in-the-making. The story isn’t that Nadal lost (again) but that Kyrgios, a 19-year-old phenom, won. Rafa didn’t even play poorly! In that way, this defeat was a lot like the Rosol loss.
Still, while Kyrgios played an extraordinary match, it's reasonable to wonder if Nadal will ever have a deep run at Wimbledon again.
After all, the 28-year-old used to be able to figure out how to get past the big hitters on grass with his phenomenal defensive skills and his own powerful hitting. It helped that Nadal was an expert at neutralizing a big server and playing his best in the big moments.
But since Nadal's knee really began to suffer in 2012, he has struggled with the quick transition from clay to grass that the French Open-Wimbledon double brings about.
That's because on grass, the ball skids off the surface and therefore peaks lower than it does on hard courts or clay, just out of Nadal's strike zone. After so much wear and tear, his knees and back can't adjust as well as they used to in their younger years.
That doesn't meant that Nadal still can't win at Wimbledon—the Spaniard has proven over the years that he is the best competitor in tennis, so it would be hard to be surprised by any of his victories. But he is going to be more vulnerable to an upset on this surface, and it's hard to see that changing.
The days of Nadal being an automatic in the final Sunday of Wimbledon are long gone. Luckily, the future of the only grass-court major looks to be in good hands.
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