It wasn’t going to happen again to Rafael Nadal. He was healthy. Along with every other tennis star, he had an extra week of preparation on grass, a surface played so infrequently.
He came into Wimbledon, won his opening match and told us, “I’m a little bit more confident now than I was a few months ago. Let’s say I’m playing more solidly.”
And yet Thursday, for the third time in his last four Wimbledons, Nadal didn’t make it out of the first week, stunned once more by someone little known outside the tennis establishment, someone outside the top 100 in the ATP rankings.
Dustin Brown served and volleyed Rafa all the way back to Majorca, beat him, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, in the third round of the event known simply as The Championships. To paraphrase a line from that Englishman of history, this is the spring and summer of Nadal’s disillusionment.
First he fails to win the French Open for only a second time in 11 years — the crown slipped a trifle on the King of Clay — then he comes to Wimbledon, with its grass courts and tradition, and gets pounded by a guy who used to travel from tournament to tournament in a Volkswagen camper and shares a name with a Los Angeles Kings hockey captain.
True, Nadal, after missing events and ranking points because of injuries, and thus chances to hang onto his top three placement, was seeded No. 10, his lowest in years. Still, he won a grass warmup tournament at the end of June and seemed to be moving as rapidly and surely as the past. The five times he entered Wimbledon from 2005 through 2010 (he missed ’09 because of bad knees), Rafa was never worse than a finalist.
Since then, it’s been a disaster. In 2012, he lost to Lukas Rosol, ranked 100th; in 2013 to Steve Darcis, ranked 135th; last year to Nick Kyrgios, ranked 144th; and now to the dreadlocked Brown, ranked 102nd.
“It’s not the end,” said Nadal. “It is a sad moment. The end of the day, that’s sport, good moments, bad moments. Obviously today is a bad moment for me. But I just need to accept these kinds of things that can happen. I have to keep going and working more than ever to try and change that dynamic.”
But is that possible? A loss, even a series of losses, does not mean the end of a career. And yet Nadal is 29, with battered knees and an occasionally sore back. We still list him, along with Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, among the Big Four in the men’s game. That may be memory more than fact.
Never before in his career had Nadal lost in one of the four majors to a qualifier, which at this Wimbledon the 30-year-old Brown was. “Well, in this court especially,” Nadal pointed out, “you meet players that don’t want to play from the baseline sometimes. You cannot have mistakes against a player like him.”
Which is exactly the way Brown planned and played. He’s now 2-0 against Nadal, having beaten him a year ago in Halle, Germany, a grass court event annually preceding Wimbledon.
“I had to do whatever to take him out of his comfort zone,” said Brown.
He is the son of a Jamaican father and German mother who was born in Germany, moved to Jamaica and now has returned to Germany. He plays a flashy, aggressive style.
“If I stay in back and rally with him, left, right, that would not be a very good match for me,” said Brown. “Even if I miss a few returns or whatever, it’s also good he doesn’t get that many hits and doesn’t get into a rhythm. Even when he passed me, I had to say, ‘OK, that is good. Concentrate on the serve and put more on it.’ “
John McEnroe, who does his broadcast work here, told a radio audience that Brown’s performance on Centre Court was one of the best he’d ever seen from a low-ranked player.
“It’s a great feeling to hear it from someone of that generation,” said Brown.
All Nadal could say was, “I never considered myself that good to not accept when somebody’s better than you.”
And without a doubt, Dustin Brown was.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.bleacherreport.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Andy MurrayDustin BrownJohn McEnroeLukas RosolNick KyrgiosNovak DjokovicRafael NadalRoger FedererSteve DarcisWimbledon