Tennis

Shocking loss hurts Nadal's legacy

Greg Couch on Rafael Nadal's stunning first-round Wimbledon defeat.
Greg Couch on Rafael Nadal's stunning first-round Wimbledon defeat.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON

The greatest player of all time can’t be losing a match like this. Not in his prime. Not at Wimbledon. And certainly not twice in a row there.

Just when the conversation was turning, when people — including me — were starting to wonder if maybe Rafael Nadal might be the best player ever, and not Roger Federer, Nadal did something that Federer never does:

He lost to a journeyman Monday in the first round of Wimbledon. Nadal lost to Steve Darcis, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4. That’s right, the Steve Darcis, ranked No. 135 and with a losing career tour record.

“Two weeks ago, I was in a fantastic situation, wining a fantastic tournament (French Open),’’ Nadal said. “Two weeks later, I lost here in the first round. That’s the positive and the negative thing about this sport.’’

The question is why this happened to Nadal, against a guy who had less of a shot at beating him than Buster Douglas had of knocking out Mike Tyson. And what does this mean to his legacy? And how much limping is he going to do in the future?

I guess there are a lot of questions when something like this happens. When George Bastl beat Pete Sampras, who was no longer in his prime, it was the last time Sampras played at Wimbledon.

Nadal refused to talk about whether his knees were hurting, saying that it would look like an excuse. By the third time he was asked about it, he said incredulously, “I think you are joking.’’

But it was obvious. Darcis did what he could to put pressure on Nadal’s knees. And in the end, Nadal was blown off the court, and then his knees gave way. He did everything he could, and this was as far as he can go.

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A body can only take so much, and I wonder if Nadal has overdone it.

This match was among the greatest upsets ever at Wimbledon, but Nadal’s second-round loss last year to Lukas Rosol is in the top 10, too. Federer has reached the quarterfinals of 36 consecutive majors.

When you get into the Greatest of All Time argument, you can’t ignore that Nadal beats Federer regularly. But consistency matters, too.

Can Sampras get back into this discussion?

Everyone remembers these massive upsets. We still remember Douglas’ name, partly because he became the champ and had another big moment. Not sure why we remember who Chaminade is. But no one outside of tennis is going to remember Rosol, or Darcis.

The truth is, no matter what Nadal’s knees are feeling like, Darcis played him perfectly. He would either drive the ball flat, or, more important, slice to Nadal’s backhand.

Nadal had changed his practice schedule, his tournament schedule, and even his backhand and his strategy as a way of protecting his knees for the future. But Darcis put the test to his knees, and it worked.

It probably provided a blueprint. That slice was skipping on the fast grass, forcing Nadal to dig low, putting a pounding on his knees every time. Sure, it helped that they were playing on grass, where the ball doesn’t bounce high. And most tournaments aren’t on the stuff.

But when Rosol beat Nadal last year, it seemed to be a matter of Nadal’s sore knees mixed with Rosol swinging as hard as he possibly could and coincidentally getting more shots in than out. You can’t count on that.

Darcis found a weakness in Nadal that might never go away. Why can’t Federer do that to Nadal? He might now.

Nadal was awful. He also couldn’t get used to the bounce, after deciding against playing a grass-court warm-up tournament. He did that, though, to save his knees.

When you’re measuring through history, you have to let the whole story play out. Nadal has some time, as he’s just 27.

But he’s 27 on 40-year old knees. He missed seven months after Wimbledon last year, and while his knees held up better than he expected this spring, the real change was his fresh mind. He kept winning through the clay-court season, and then won the French.

And while everyone keeps waiting for Nadal’s knees to finally give in for good, it was relief that he had put it off again. But after Monday’s match, you had to wonder if he would rethink his schedule again.

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He played too much. It’s a good bet he’s going to disappear for a while now, too.

“I played when I had the feeling that I can play,’’ Nadal said shortly after Monday’s match. “My feelings were that I played the weeks that I felt right to play . . .

“Since six hours ago, was a perfect calendar. Now, is a very negative calendar?’’

With Nadal out of the way, that half of the draw now opens up perfectly for Andy Murray to possibly win his first Wimbledon. Or for . . .

Federer.

A day ago, Nadal was starting to look like the best ever and Federer was looking old.

And all that was changed by some guy named Steve. Do you still remember his last name?

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