- Wimbledon, Day One
Dashing Darcis condemns Nadal to second shock exit
Rafael Nadal is out of Wimbledon after a second shock defeat in as many years, suffering his first career loss in the opening round of a grand slam after being beaten in straight sets by the virtually unknown Steve Darcis.
Belgian Darcis, the current world No. 135, attacked his vaunted opponent from the off, proving more than value for his initial two-set lead after edging both tiebreaks.
Nadal's movement, however, hinted at an inury problem, and he certainly seemed to be struggling badly towards the closing stages of a 7-6(4) 7-6(8) 6-4 defeat out on Court One.
Speaking afterwards, Nadal refused to blame an injury issue, saying: "It was not the right day for me. I tried the best out there and it was not possible for me this afternoon. The opponent played well, I had my chances and I did not make it."
The eight-time French Open champion - who has not played a competitive match on grass since last year's loss to Lukas Rosol - appeared eager to run around shots in order to avoid planting his feet for backhands, perhaps an indication of issues with his problematic left knee.
Nevertheless, as with that memorable meeting with Rosol, Nadal was also undone by the otherworldly play of his opponent, Darcis frequently producing remarkable recovery shots or pinpoint passing strokes to frustrate many of Nadal's attempts to rally back.
"Nobody was expecting me to win," Darcis said. "Okay, Rafa did not play his best tennis today, but I knew the first match on grass is not easy. I tried to play not far from the baseline, and it worked pretty good for me."
It certainly did. There was little indication that a shock was on the cards prior to the match, although Darcis' strong start may have made some of the more astute observers on Court One ponder the possibility of a dramatic match.
The Belgian - who made a run of sorts at this venue at last year's Olympics, but prior to that had won just once at the All England Club - started nervously against his illustrious opponent but grew in confidence quickly and was soon bossing Nadal around, perhaps disappointed to find himself forced into a first set tiebreak.
He was not dismayed, however, and held his nerve better than Nadal to move ahead.
It quickly became apparent that his lead was no flash in the pan. The second set was drama packed - with the contest even before Darcis dramatically broke for 6-5. Nadal, however, immediately broke back to at least force a tiebreak - one he would also create a set point in as the chance to restore normality briefly moved into view.
But Darcis would save that point and then create six of his own, taking the last of them to put everyone in SW19 on full alert that a shock was on the cards.
That only became more likely when the Belgian broke in the early stages of the third. Nadal had been running around shots to avoid his backhand for much of the second set, but now he was visibly limping off his left leg - struggling with any backhand shots and proving reticent to come in for short balls.
Nevertheless, the Nadal persevered; none of Darcis' remaining service games were ticked off without real difficulties. But every half-chance Nadal managed to uncover was soon repelled - either by a stunning Darcis stroke or an injury-affected unforced error - as the underdog eventually powered down an ace to clinch perhaps the biggest victory of his career.
"On grass it is difficult to adapt yourself and your game," Nadal concluded. "I was not able to do that."
"If you start to focus on him it is tougher," Darcis added, when asked about Nadal's troubles. "I tried to focus on what I had to do today and I think it worked well for me."
Nadal, gracious in defeat, stood aside as Darcis accepted the adulation of crowd; signing a few autographs for fans before disappearing into the bowls of the arena.
It remains to be seen when we next see him on a court.