The response to former champion Rafael Nadal losing in the opening round of Wimbledon more or less came down to two reactions. – “He Lost. Again?” and “That Guy Was Ranked How Low?”. The answer to both questions is yes and No. 135 in the world.
Even tennis stars seemed to be trying to make sense of the stunning upset that saw unheralded Belgian journeyman Steve Darcis pull off the upset of the year. (Unless you want to count Horacio Zeballos and his just as surprising win over Nadal – in a clay court final no less – back in February as the biggest of all). Serena Williams might have been speaking for many Nadal fans when she said, “I’m probably his biggest fan. But I obviously was really sad. But in a way I was happy, too, because I felt like he’ll have time to rest up and get ready for the hard court season.”
Novak Djokovic after winning his own opening round in straight sets mused, “To be honest, I was expecting him to be a bit rusty on the court. Rafa with the movement and his game, it’s normal because he has played so many matches this year since he came back. Majority of those matches were on clay. So he didn’t have any matches on grass. It’s totally different surface, totally different game.”
These two statements from Djokovic and Williams are the prevailing viewpoints many are taking on Nadal’s unexpected loss. Yes Nadal has had an incredible season so far that includes winning seven titles and just a few weeks ago an unprecedented eighth Roland Garros championship. But perhaps all of that grinding on clay after a seven month layoff took too heavy a toll on Nadal’s body and not just on his still sore knee alone. While Nadal himself refused to discuss the health of his knee after the loss, it was clear in that match versus Darcis that the Spaniard’s movement was compromised. Even Darcis admitted Nadal did not play his best. But, as Nadal eloquently stated, he would offer no excuses. Darcis came to play and was the better man that day.
Williams, like many Nadal fans, hopes to see him back in action during the summer North American hard court swing. But there’s no guarantee as to how many of those events he will actually show up for. A good rest is likely what Nadal needs. But how eager will Nadal be to jump onto the concrete and start adding more stress to his body? Or will he attempt to just show up at the U.S. Open, as he did at Wimbledon, without any pre-event matches and more or less wing it?
Nadal’s will to win is supreme, but what about his will to overcome pain day after day after a decade of competition? Nadal in his press conference said he would try his best over the next coming years to deal with his physical issues. That suggests Nadal now realizes that he is definitely entering a new stage in his career, one that appears to be more finite than ever before. Some have suggested that Nadal can never win Wimbledon again. That’s absurd, but Nadal’s body is not bouncing back like it used to and he will have to find perhaps a new way to make the transition from clay to grass than he has before.
Nadal might find solace in knowing that in 2015 he, and everyone else, will have an extra week in-between Paris and London. But will that be enough of a break for him? Will Nadal have to finally alter his schedule even more to allow himself more time to recuperate? We’re already seeing that with Roger Federer who is playing a somewhat shorter number of events, most notably an absence from Miami – a tournament Nadal also withdrew from this year after winning Indian Wells. How many events Nadal can and should play given his physical issues, is a question he and his team must now answer. His fans might be disappointed if he doesn’t appear in their city, but they may have to accept it in the long term.
“Nobody remember the losses. People remember the victories. And I don’t want to remember that loss,” said Nadal towards the end of his press conference. Despite Nadal’s tremendous French Open victory this year, in some ways he and his many supporters are almost right back where they were a year ago. After the glory of Paris and now yet again the abrupt disappointment at Wimbledon, fans are asking “What’s next for Rafa?” He may not know the answer himself, but he has 12 months to look forward to yet another chance on the lawns of Wimbledon that has been the sight of some of his greatest defeats and history-making triumphs.