LAST year it was the second round. This year, the first.
Rafael Nadal, the reigning French Open champion and twice winner here, fell at the first hurdle yesterday, losing 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 to the little-known Steve Darcis of Belgium.
Nadal had been 1-100 with the bookmakers to see off Darcis, a 29-year-old ATP journeyman ranked 113 in the world, who had lost in the first round in 12 of his previous 18 grand slam appearances. But the Spaniard – seemingly back to his best at Roland Garros last month – was simply outplayed on grass by the Belgian, who reached his first Futures Final in Glasgow in 2003 when he lost to a 16-year-old Andy Murray.
Murray, meanwhile, progressed without drama, winning 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 against Germany’s Benjamin Becker. In the second round, the Scot will play Chinese Taipei’s Lu Yen-hsun – a 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 7-6 (13-11), 7-6 (7/4) winner against Britain’s James Ward.
Nadal was the subject of considerable controversy last week when the All England Club chose to make him the fifth seed for this year’s Championships. The organisers were widely slated for their meanness towards the great Spaniard, who has a far superior record to the man seeded fourth, David Ferrer. Now, though, it looks like the seeding committee erred, if anything, on the side of generosity. A long-term sufferer from knee problems, Nadal never looked remotely close to his best, and once he had lost the second tie-break to go two sets down, he realised the game was up.
Just as Lukas Rosol did against Nadal in a late-night finish under the lights of Centre Court in 2012, Darcis – nicknamed the ‘The Shark’ for the tattoo he sports on his right shoulder – rose to the occasion.
As Murray was serving for a two-set lead on Centre, Darcis was serving for the match on Court One. The Liege-born player held his nerve, and his serve, to round off the most impressive result of his career. He did show decent grasscourt form last year when he dumped Tomas Berdych out of the Olympic tournament at Wimbledon, won by Murray. But in truth, Darcis never quite had to hit the heights reached by Rosol 12 months earlier. Then, the Czech – who incidentally also lost yesterday – played out of his skin. Darcis was able to be more contained, exploiting Nadal’s mobility problems.
For all Nadal’s persistent issues with injury, this was the first time he had lost in the first round of a major. He was the only former world No 1 to have been able to boast such a statistic. His French Open victory was a triumph, but his semi-final five-setter over Novak Djokovic in particular must have taken its toll. He pulled out of the Halle grasscourt tournament a fortnight ago, apparently as a precaution.
Whatever rest and recuperation he was able to take then was clearly not enough – although after his defeat he refused to reveal how bad he felt physically. “It’s not the right day,” he replied when asked if there was a physical reason for his defeat. “I tried my best out there in every moment. The opponent played well. I had my chances. I don’t want to talk about my knee. Anything that I would say today about my knee would be an excuse. The only thing I can say is to congratulate Steve Darcis.”
Darcis, who next faces Lukasz Kubot of Poland, said: “It is my biggest win so I have to be happy. Maybe he was not in the best shape ever but I have to be proud of me. I have been feeling really good for a few months. For me it was easy today, nobody expected me to win.”