Shocking Wimbledon exit for Rafael Nadal

He doesn’t blame knee for 1st-round loss

Rafael Nadal (left) walks off the court after losing to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon. Nadal had been 34-0 in the first round of Grand Slam events.
toby melville/reuters
Rafael Nadal (left) walks off the court after losing to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon. Nadal had been 34-0 in the first round of Grand Slam events.

LONDON — Just like that, in a span of 15 days, Rafael Nadal went from French Open champion for a record eighth time to first-round Grand Slam loser for the first time in his career.

Limping occasionally and slower than usual, but unwilling afterward to blame an old left knee injury, the two-time Wimbledon winner exited, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 6-4, on Monday against 135th-ranked Steve Darcis of Belgium — one of the most stunning results ever at the All England Club.

‘‘Nobody remembers the losses. People remember the victories,’’ Nadal said, shaking his head as he leaned back in a black leather chair. ‘‘And I don’t want to remember that loss.’’


Everyone else definitely will.

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It certainly belongs in the same category as his loss a year ago at Wimbledon, in the second round to Lukas Rosol, a player ranked 100th at the time. After that setback, Nadal missed about seven months because of his bad left knee. Since returning, he had gone 43-2 and reached the final at all nine tournaments he entered, winning seven.

Most recently, in Paris, he collected his 12th Grand Slam trophy, tied for third most in history, while extending his winning streak to 22 matches.

‘‘Two weeks ago, I was in a fantastic situation, winning a fantastic tournament,’’ Nadal said. ‘‘Two weeks later, I lost here in the first round. That’s the positive and the negative thing about this sport.’’

toby melville/reuters
Steve Darcis celebrates after upsetting Rafael Nadal in straight sets at Wimbledon.

His early defeat rendered moot all the debate in the preceding days about whether Nadal’s No. 5 seeding was appropriate or whether Wimbledon officials should have bumped him higher because of past success at the grass-court tournament.


In five appearances at Wimbledon from 2006-11 (he missed the 2009 edition because of knee trouble), Nadal reached the final five times. He won the 2008 and 2010 championships, and was the runner-up to Roger Federer in 2006-07, then to Novak Djokovic in 2011.

Because of Nadal’s low-for-him seeding this time — his ranking slid during his time off — he wound up in the same half of the draw as seven-time champion Federer and second-seeded Andy Murray. A possible Nadal-Federer quarterfinal loomed, as did a potential Nadal-Murray semifinal.

So much for that.

‘‘Pretty irrelevant right now,’’ said Murray, who won in three sets Monday, as did Federer. ‘‘It’s obviously surprising. But, you know, the consistency that Rafa, Roger, Novak have shown in the Slams over the last five, six years, it’s going to be almost impossible to keep that up forever.’’

Two days before Wimbledon started, Nadal spoke about having more trouble on grass than other surfaces lately because its low skids force him to bend his knees so much to reach shots. Nadal decided to skip a grass-court tuneup tournament between the French Open and Wimbledon, opting to rest instead.


On Monday, he said, ‘‘I didn’t move the way I need to if I’m going to win on this surface.’’

Nadal avoids discussing health issues in the immediate aftermath of a defeat — he didn’t reveal the left knee injury last year until weeks after the Rosol match — and Monday was no different. Still, anyone who watched Nadal play Darcis could tell something wasn’t right.

Nadal deflected three questions in English about his left knee, saying it’s ‘‘not the day to talk about these kind of things’’ and that it would sound like ‘‘an excuse.’’ When a reporter asked in Spanish about the knee, Nadal replied: ‘‘You’re assuming I’m injured.’’ He later did repeat what he mentioned at Roland Garros, which is that the knee is painful at times.

‘‘Maybe he was not in the best shape ever. Maybe he didn’t play his best match,’’ Darcis said, noting that he wants to get his hands on a DVD of the most significant victory of his career. ‘‘But I have to be proud.’’

That’s for sure.

Darcis came in 7-18 in Grand Slam matches, including 12 first-round losses. So when asked his reaction upon hearing last week that he would be facing Nadal, Darcis smiled broadly and gave a one-word answer unfit for publication. Then he added: ‘‘When you see the draw, of course you say, ‘Ah, it’s bad luck.’ ’’

Nadal gave the 29-year-old Darcis kudos for playing well. Taking big swings and connecting time and again, Darcis finished with 53 winners to Nadal’s 32, while making the same number of unforced errors. Nadal would slump his shoulders or hang his head after misses, and there was a noticeable hitch in his step on some points.

‘‘Nobody was expecting me to win. So I had to play a good match, relax and enjoy. . . . That’s what I did,’’ Darcis said. ‘‘I really wanted to do something today.’’

He did something no one ever had: In 34 previous major tournaments, Nadal was 34-0 in the first round. Overall, he came in 164-22 at majors. In the first 178 Grand Slam matches of his career, Nadal never lost in any round to a player ranked lower than 70th. But in his last nine major matches, he’s been beaten by a pair of guys in the hundreds.

Asked what he did well Monday, Nadal said: ‘‘Not a lot of things.’’

There were two moments when the 27-year-old Spaniard had a real chance to get close. He broke Darcis to go up, 6-5, in the second set, but dropped serve right away with a flubbed backhand, a shot that gave Nadal problems repeatedly. Then, after saving Darcis’s first four set points in the ensuing tiebreaker, Nadal held one set point himself. With a chance to even the match, however, he dumped a backhand into the net. Two points later, Nadal sailed an errant forehand long, and Darcis held his right fist aloft, celebrating a two-set lead.

Darcis then broke to open the third, and the spectators roared, not so much because they dislike Nadal, but perhaps so they could forever boast, ‘‘I was there.’’

Despite feeling tired as the match approached three hours, Darcis played brilliantly in the final game. He hit a forehand winner. He delivered another winner on the run and, as his momentum carried him near the stands, Darcis dropped to a knee and pumped his right arm. After one last Nadal miscue set up match point, Darcis capped his victory with a 109-mile-per-hour ace.

‘‘I’m not going to get wasted just because I beat Nadal. . . . I might have a beer; the ‘recovery beer’ we call it,’’ Darcis said. ‘‘I need to keep my focus. It would be a shame to beat Nadal, then stop there.’’

While he was sidelined from June to February, Nadal missed the Olympics, US Open, and Australian Open. Pressed about his schedule, and the notion that his style might put too much pounding on his body, Nadal at first said that no one can ever be sure about the future.

But he did say: ‘‘I don’t have any intention of missing the US Open,’’ which begins in late August.