It’s difficult to decipher meaning from Rafael Nadal’s first-round loss at Wimbledon just weeks after winning the French Open. Maybe Nadal just had a case of the Mondays. Usually, he consumes his first-round opponents quicker than a competitive eater at a buffet on his first day off a hunger strike. In 35 career first-round matchups, Nadal is 34-1 in 35 major tournaments.
Steve Darcis mowed the lawn with the world’s No. 2 player and gave Nadal the tournament off.
There was a time when we believed Nadal would run this house like the Simmons’, instead he got run out by a squatter ranked No. 44 in the world. Darcis only has two singles trophies on his résumé, but this win should matter more. It’s a win he’ll be bragging about for the next 50 years. Nadal is a virtuoso on clay, but on the Wimbledon grass, he’s as human as Clark Kent hopped up on kryptonite.
The loss may also be an indictment of Nadal’s health. On the French Open’s red clay surface, the ball speed slows and the importance of lateral agility is lessened. Conversely, grass is the fastest conventional surface that the WTA plays on. There are also plausible theories floating that Nadal didn’t trust his ability to move laterally and plant on a grass surface, which isn’t conducive to sliding.
That’s debatable, but what’s not is that he’s lost twice before in the second round of Wimbledon. His first early loss at Wimbledon occurred in 2005, when he was 19 years old. His second was just before he began his seven-month layoff to rest his left knee. At the time, his loss to 100th-ranked Rosol was proclaimed one of the greatest upsets in tennis history. It should be noted that he won the French Open both years. At this point, a French Open win and bowing out early from Wimbledon are becoming routine.
If the knee isn’t a concern, then this loss signifies a disappointing development in Nadal’s career. Imagine if Lebron James started breaking down physically in his early thirties while Kevin Durant was in his prime, and instead Kyrie Irving usurped Durant as the new face of the NBA. That’s basically what happened to Nadal with Djokovic.
During Federer’s reign, Nadal was deservedly crowned the “King of Clay.” Any territory covered in crushed brick was Nadal’s. Eight of his 12 major wins have come at Roland Garros and he's been a three-time runner-up at Wimbledon. Federer ruled over the remainder of the tennis land. Instead of hijacking the tennis crown after Federer succumbed to old age, Novak Djokovic has locked Nadal away in his French Open fortress and claimed dominion over the No. 1 spot. Since Nadal's near-Golden Slam in 2010, he's finished runner-up to Djokovic in three Grand Slam finals.
We may have proclaimed him the successor to Federer’s throne prematurely. Whether it’s injuries or he’s been lapped by peers, Nadal's ascendance to the throne has been a mine field rife with obstacles, and unfortunately, his greatness has been limited to a single tournament. The bar is high to be the world's best, but Nadal hasn't been able to reach those standards away from Roland Garros. And he may never.