Wimbledon 2015: Why Rafael Nadal's 'shock' exit is no shock
Last updated on .From the section Tennis
|Venue: All England Club Dates: 29 June - 12 July|
|Play: Outside courts 12:15 BST; Centre Court and Court One 13:00 BST|
|BBC coverage: Across TV, radio and online with up to 15 live streams available. Read More: TV and radio schedules.|
The great shock of Rafael Nadal's shock exit from Wimbledon at the hands of previously anonymous qualifier Dustin Brown was that in some ways it was no shock at all.
Nadal is a 14-time Grand Slam champion. He triumphed in the greatest Wimbledon final of all time. He has a forehand that is less a groundstroke than a superpower.
And his past four Wimbledons now look like this: 2012, loses to world number 100; 2013: loses to number 135; 2014: loses to number 144; 2015: loses to number 102.
And yet. For all that we should be used to the sight of the once invulnerable giant of the game reduced to the role of ancient monument to be repeatedly defaced, there is still fresh astonishment in watching it happen once again.
Nadal had never lost to a qualifier at a Grand Slam in 21 meetings. Brown had never before beaten a seed at a Grand Slam event.
Brown may have won the only previous meeting between the two in straight sets, just over a year ago and also on grass. But this was his first time on Centre Court. He played four hours of doubles (and lost) the day before.
Nadal has earned almost £50m in prize money alone. Brown has no coach and has to pay for his own racquets.
The decline of a great
Even as the Centre Court crowd thrilled to Brown's extravagant serve-and-volley game, there was a parallel sense of mourning for the death-spin of a former darling.
Nadal has lit up this court like very few others, his escalating grass-court rivalry with Roger Federer culminating in one fabulous final in 2007 and then, a year later, a match that quite comfortably went further still.
To watch a man famed for his relentless defence pulled apart by a 30-year-old who has only won four matches at Grand Slam tournaments in his entire career was simultaneously exhilarating and wretched.
But it was in the demise of that once-wonderful forehand that the passing years were most clearly visible.
This was always the great bedrock to Nadal's game, a weapon that could dismantle the best and intimidate the pretenders. Its whipped power and top-spin drove opponents back. Its depth left them reeling on the ropes.
On Thursday it was instead a virus, a flaw that opened great holes in his own defences. Too often it was short. Frequently it was mistimed. Repeatedly it sat up when before it had fizzed past chins or crashed into corners.
When Nadal lost to Steve Darcis in the first round here in 2013, he did so having secured his eighth French Open title a few weeks earlier. A few months later he would win his second US Open title and reclaim the world number one ranking.
Even last year, in crashing out to Nick Kyrgios, then a teenager, he did so having won his 14th Grand Slam in Paris in the same month.
Now? Now Lukas Rosol, his unexpected assassin in this same arena in 2012, no longer feels like the answer to a pub quiz question of the future. How can he be, when he is no longer the man who toppled the king but merely the first of four?
A future burdened by the past
The patterns do not look pretty for Nadal, and not only because he has now failed to make it past the quarter-finals of the first three Grand Slam events of the year for the first time since he was a callow 18-year-old.
In the past six months he has lost in the first round of the Qatar Open to the unheralded Michael Berrer, currently ranked 139th in the world, lost to the Czech Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open having gone into the contest on a 17-match winning streak against his opponent and lost early at Indian Wells and the Miami Open.
More tellingly, the King of Clay went through the entire season on his favourite surface without a single tournament win - losing in straight sets to Andy Murray in Madrid, where he has been crowned champion five times in the past; losing to Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals in Rome; getting beaten by Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals at the French Open in Paris, after 39 consecutive wins at Roland Garros stretching back six years. For the first time in a decade his ranking has slipped outside the world's top five.
|John McEnroe, three-time Wimbledon champion|
|"Five hundred professional tennis players are inspired to hang in for a couple of years longer because of what they have just seen there. Nothing is impossible. Brown's level of play on this court was spectacularly high."|
At 29 years old you would hope he has time to arrest this precipitous slide. Federer is 33, and managing to make his own inevitable decline a much shallower one.
But Nadal is an old 29, this is his 15th season as a professional, his long-term tendonitis at best managed but never gone, his body increasingly struggling to cope with the immense forces he puts through it.
Then there is the confidence that allowed him to achieve the near-impossible - winning those record-breaking nine French Open titles, dethroning Federer in his own adopted kingdom.
"Part of the problem when other players have seen you being beaten is that it adds to their self-belief," says Tim Henman, Britain's former world number four.
"Dustin Brown will have looked at what Kyrgios, Darcis and Rosol have done against Nadal at Wimbledon in the last few years and said, 'They have beaten him, why can't I?'"
"Once you lose that aura it is hard to get it back," says John McEnroe, three-time men's singles champion here. "At the moment that aura is not there for Rafael Nadal. Players feel it and can feed off it."
Can Nadal get it back?
Can the clock be turned back?
History has begun to repeat itself for Nadal, the man who once reshaped it to his will.
Each of these four defeats in the past four years has come the same way - against a big hitter who went for every shot without fear and made enough of them.
Brown's performance was a throwback to McEnroe's own era, his victory founded on a classical grass-court game that saw him win a remarkable 71 of 99 serve-volley points.
A year ago Nadal lost the first set to Kyrgios, won the second and looked to be ready to re-establish the old order, only to be trampled in the remaining two instead. So it was again against Brown.
"Rafa has definitely got at least five more years in the game if he wants that," says Henman.
"His game is much more physically demanding than Federer's, which might make it harder to play as long as he does. But he still has the passion, which is hugely important. We saw his enthusiasm out there on Centre Court. He still wants it, which is a great sign."
Others are less optimistic, seeing instead a game that is running away from a player even as his own speed of movement and reaction are in decline.
"The grass has changed," says Marion Bartoli, 2013 ladies' champion here. "The way the ball bounces on the grass has changed, and it really does not favour Rafa.
"The top-spin he plays really doesn't help him because the ball is just sitting perfectly for players to pounce. And since it is harder to defend on grass, he is not having the long rallies like on clay."
Had those watching the then-24-year-old Nadal's demolition of Berdych in the 2010 Wimbledon final been told that he may never win another, we would have assumed career-ending injury or the rise of an unstoppable opponent.
Djokovic's own outstanding ascent would deny Nadal in the following year's final. Since then he has never come remotely close. Even to those relishing Brown's improbable fairytale the bittersweet taste cannot be ignored.
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What is shocking though is the BBC coverage this year! What is going on with the highlights show?! I don't know anyone who tunes in to tennis to watch a chat show!
Dustin Brown ? About as German as Aljaz Bedene is English
Actually he was born in Germany to a woman called Inge, you muppet.
2 Jul 2015 23:00
"The great players need to be protected until round 2."
You mean Week 2, right?
" If Murray and Federer go out may as well not bother. "
"Why not give the top 8 seeds a bye to the 4th round"
What a stupid idea. And that wouldn't have saved your precious Nadal anyway, given that he's only seeded number 10.
Let's not write Rafa's obituary yet, it's about whether he can adapt.
Truth is Rafa's game is slightly one dimensional and relies overly on brute force.
He forced the game to be played differently and how Djokovic and Murray have embraced the challenge and worked it out is incredible.
He needs to now re-adapt his game (a la Federer) and this takes time and a new coach.
The top 16 seeded players don't start meeting each other until the 4th round in any case. If several of the top seeds lose in the early rounds to lower-ranked/less well-known players, the players who beat them fully deserve their success. Winning a GS in 3 or 4 matches if you're a "big name" vs 7 grueling matches if you're not? Very fair!
Being English I want Murray to win - and yes, I am a patriotic Englishman.
Rafa should be immensely proud of his achievements when there has been great players like Federer, Djokovic and Murray around.
He played with total freedom, made outrageous shots, owned the net, deft drop-shots, 2nd serve aces, blistering returns fore- and backhand, kept composure and nerve to the very end, and just lit up the tournament.
Nadal remains one of the greatest to ever play the game, in an era when he had to compete against Federer and Djokovic.
And by the way, does it really matter what nationality Brown is?
How about just praising a magnificent victory?
3 minutes ago
If Rafa retires now, there's no way he'll be remembered as a true great.
I think 9 wins in the space of 10 years at the French open plus a Career Golden Slam mean he certainly will........
here is a quote from Murray:
"I'll be supporting anyone but England."
That was a joke made whilst having a bit of banter in the studio with Tim Henman. You should look up joke in the dictionary so that you don't get confused next time.
Or perhaps we should tell all our sports stars not to have a sense of humour in case they offend a member of the public ?
"We'll be cheering your every mistake!"
So you're going to watch him to boo him? Oh dear.
Even if he wasn't joking, you know that he was about 19 when he said this right? Some of the crap I came out with at that age is much worse. You grow up, you learn, you become a wiser person. Sounds like you still have that to come!