Rafael Nadal suffered more early Wimbledon heartbreak Thursday, as he was dumped out in Round 2 by a dazzling Dustin Brown performance on Centre Court.
The German, who is ranked No. 102 in the world, played the match of his life to win 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4. It’s the third time in the last four years that Nadal has lost at Wimbledon before the third round and the first time in his career he's lost to a qualifier at a Slam competition.
It's not exaggeration to say the first set was one of the most fascinating ever seen on Centre Court. Brown was enterprising, entertaining and effervescent in the opening exchanges, mixing his game up with thunderous returns, delicate drop shots and some heavenly touch at the net.
He was a little erratic initially, as Nadal broke to go 2-1 up in the third game. But the German continued playing with freedom and got back into the set at 3-3 with a break of his own. As noted by Tom Peck of the Independent, Brown was in stunning form:
Brown continued to play with blistering pace, holding comfortably in the latter stages of the set and producing more ingenious shots at the net. Then, leading 6-5 on Nadal's serve, Brown carved out two set points, the second of which he converted with an emphatic return into the Spaniard’s feet.
“This could be one of the all-time sets we have seen at Wimbledon,” said John McEnroe on BBC Sport. As we can see courtesy of the tournament’s official Twitter account, Brown was delighted to win it:
Given the variety the German was injecting into this match, Nadal was unable to get any rhythm into his play. You got the impression he was merely clinging on and waiting for Brown to burn out. After all, he couldn’t keep up this level of intensity, could he?
The early indications in the second set suggested not, as Brown allowed the Spaniard to secure a vital break.
From this point, Nadal began to move through the gears, threading passing shots past the onrushing Brown more and more as the set rumbled on. Eventually, another scything forehand from the 10th seed helped him secure a second break in the ninth game, and he took the set 6-3.
At the end of the second set, the pattern of the game was made abundantly clear in statistical form, via the Wimbledon official Twitter account:
Brown could have easily crumbled here, but he continued playing in his own unique style. His play was still unshakeably aggressive and totally opposite of Rafa’s. With the third set on serve in the fifth game, Brown broke the illustrious Spaniard again.
Nadal just couldn’t nullify the German enigma, and with his dreadlocks exuberantly trailing behind him, Brown held his nerve brilliantly to serve out the set and go within touching distance of a stunning upset.
As noted by Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times, the two-time champion looked a little jaded:
The underdog clearly sensed this was the case too, and he continued to pressure Rafa early on in the fourth set. Once again, Brown gobbled up Nadal’s serve and grabbed a crucial break with an ominous and downright shocking ease. Suddenly, with the Spaniard's head down, the prospect of Brown winning this match was a feasible possibility.
Business tycoon Sir Alan Sugar was worried for Nadal's chances:
Brown appeared completely unfazed by the magnitude of what he was potentially about to achieve. The pace was nothing short of relentless, as the German continued to rattle through his service with the poise of a seasoned veteran.
He even conjured two match points on the Nadal serve, but the Spaniard dug deep to hold. However, as had been the case throughout the set, Brown dictated with ball in hand, serving his way to the biggest win of his career.
Tom Fordyce of BBC Sport summed up the magnitude of this shock:
It takes something special to beat a man like Nadal on a grand stage like this, but the manner in which Brown secured this win makes the victory even more extraordinary. The Centre Court crowd was completely bewitched by his astounding brand of the tennis, and this triumph will live long in the memory of the world’s No. 102-ranked player.
By contrast, it’s a shame to see this version of Rafa. His preparations for this tournament yielded concerns, and they manifested in earnest against an industrious opponent in this Round 2 match. Sadly, Nadal looks a long way from the player that has thrilled us for the best part of the last decade, and there will be plenty of fans asking whether he’ll ever scale those heights again.