It is perhaps the most noteworthy two-match losing streak in recent tennis history. Almost 12 months after getting bombed off of Centre Court by a smoking hot Lukas Rosol, Rafael Nadal limped out of Wimbledon after a straight-set loss to Belgian Steve Darcis, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.
After winning the first 34 first-round slam matches of his career, Nadal is now 34-1; after 32 of 35 matches at Wimbledon from 2006-11, Nadal has now lost two in a row; and after seemingly erasing all lingering doubts from the knee injury that cost him about seven months of action, Nadal is now back on the caution list.
Tennis is so much more about confidence than we even realize. Reflecting on his first slam win a decade ago, Roger Federer recently said the following:
“It was not only my first Wimbledon title, but my first Grand Slam title overall. The '03 victory came just at the right time. (It) gave me all the confidence I needed to become world No. 1 a few months later.”
Talent matters above all, but belief matters so much when you have no teammates, no coaches to keep you on track. Every two games, you sit in a chair and reflect. And if you need further convincing of the role of confidence, just compare Nadal's body language in Paris three weeks ago and in London on Monday. Even when opponents were landing some haymakers on him early in the French Open, or in the semifinals against Novak Djokovic, he never stopped grinding, never stopped attempting to find holes. But against Darcis, Nadal seemed resigned and uncertain. Whatever was nagging his left leg probably had something to do with that, but it is very difficult not to believe he was suffering Rosol flashbacks, at least in the third set. The final set unfolded just like it did against Rosol -- with an immediate break of Nadal's serve and almost no threats from Nadal.
In his post-match interview, Darcis admitted that Nadal didn't appear to be at the top of his game. The Spaniard's backhand was faulty, to put it mildly, and his serve was iffy from the start. And as Darcis began to tighten up late in the second and third sets, Nadal did him all sorts of favors with errors and mishits. Nadal likes to ease into grass court play, and he began to limp a bit as the match progressed; that's obviously a bad combination.
But you still have to play well to beat Rafael Nadal. And while Darcis doesn't bring the power that a Rosol might have, he made up for it with shot-making and hustle. He dove for balls like Boris Becker. He hit punishing backhand slices like Steffi Graf. He chased everything down, he made Nadal pay for every short approach shot, and he answered every Nadal winner with a winner of his own.
I wrote not even a month ago that players don't seem scared of Rafael Nadal anymore. You need more than fearlessness to beat Nadal, of course -- Nadal still won 21 of 25 sets in Paris -- but you have no chance if you assume he's going to throttle you. Nadal's French Open win began to give us flashbacks to previous invincibility, but Darcis paid no mind to such a thing. He made it clear from the opening set, when he forced eight break points in four Nadal service games, that he was ready to outwork and outplay the two-time Wimbledon champion. And he did. And fans of Roger Federer (whom Nadal was likely to play in the quarterfinals) and Andy Murray (semifinals) rejoice.
Grass is not Rafael Nadal's surface. That he has won two Wimbledon titles despite that obvious fact is a testament his amazing power and talent. But since we're always talking about legacies in tennis, it's probably noteworthy to point out that Nadal has not won a slam title off of clay since late-2010. He could almost catch Roger Federer's slam titles record with French Open titles alone, but he'll have to do more than that to wrest the "greatest player ever" title away from Federer or anybody else. He is already the greatest clay court player ever, but that's different; with the way his body betrays him at times, he cannot afford too many more blown opportunities.