The freshly-groomed, bright green grass of Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Club did nothing to muffle the sound of Rafael Nadal, crashing out of Wimbledon.
Rafa, just weeks from his triumphant and record-breaking 8th victory at Roland Garros, petered out against Belgium's Steve Darcis, 76 (4), 76 (8), 64. Darcis is ranked 135th in the world.
It's the first time Nadal has lost in a first round in 34 Grand Slam appearances.
The match stats show Nadal played a sloppy game, with 24 unforced errors. That is the same number of errors Darcis racked up, but he hit 53 winners, while Rafa hit just 32.
Nobody was expecting me to win. So I had to play a good match, relax, and enjoy the game. That's what I did. -- Steve Darcis
Here's how Ben Rothenberg tells it in The New York Times:
Nadal was often exposed during the match when trying to run around his misfiring backhand to strike a forehand. It is a tactic he often uses with great success on clay but the quicker grass courts proved less forgiving.
Wimbledon.com writer Barry Newcombe notes that this early exit is worse than the second round beat-down Nadal suffered last year at Wimbledon at the hands -- and awesome serve -- of Lukas Rosol. Rosol played out of his mind, the best of his career. Darcis' win was impressive in a different way. He did what Nadal often does. He took control of the match from the get-go, holding six break points in Nadal's first four service games.
The odds were surely stacked against Darcis. He had played at Wimbledon only three times before – and was a First round loser a year ago. In twelve of his previous Grand Slam appearances he had lost in the First round.
Darcis's best performance at Wimbledon before today was to reach the second round in 2009. His best results have been on the Challenger circuit but he did have one good year on grass at Eastbourne in 2012 when he reached the semi-finals before quitting with a back injury against Andy Roddick. Today at Wimbledon Darcis kicked away his previous record for ever. He gained one of the historic wins of any era at the Championships. Moreover he did so against one of the unquestioned giants of the game. Nadal had 20 wins on grass going into this First round match
But Nadal had not played the Wimby warm-up in Halle, Germany this year. Nadal doesn't like to give excuses for his losses, but he hinted at this one in his post-match face-the-press conference.
"The opponent played well. I had my chances. I didn't make it," he said. "So in grass is difficult to adapt yourself, to adapt your game. When you don't have the chance to play before, I didn't have that chance this year, is tougher. I didn't find my rhythm."
But sports reporters -- those hungry beasts -- would not let this go. They were on the hunt for Tennis Hate, and there's no better Hater story line than the one that posits that the 26-year-old King of Clay plays too punishing a game and is grinding his troubled knees right out of the sport.
Q. You turned a lot around your backhand to play your forehand, and also you didn't move that well. Was your knee 100% today?
RAFAEL NADAL: I think you are joking. I answered this question three times or four times already. I don't gonna talk about my knee this afternoon.
Only thing that can say today is congratulate Steve Darcis. He played a fantastic match. Everything that I will say today about my knee is an excuse, and I don't like to put any excuse when I'm losing a match like I lost today.
He deserve not one excuse.
Q. You talked a little bit in Paris about your schedule, adjusting it. I'm wondering if you think you might need to look at that more closely. Obviously you love playing on the clay, but it's a lot of matches. Is that something you think going forward you need to look at more closely? [TRANSLATION: IS IT YOUR FAULT YOU LOST BECAUSE ARE YOU PLAYING TOO MUCH?]
RAFAEL NADAL: What? I didn't understand that.
Q. In Paris you talked about your schedule, maybe adjusting it. I'm wondering if you think physically it's a lot on your body to play so much on clay, even though you love that surface. [TRANSLATION: IS IT YOUR FAULT YOU LOST BECAUSE YOU ARE PLAYING TOO MUCH?]
RAFAEL NADAL: If I play too much? That's the question?
Q. I'm wondering if you need to look at your schedule. [TRANSLATION: SHIT, HE'S ON TO ME, HE REALIZES I WANT TO KNOW IF HE'S TO BLAME FOR PLAYING TOO MUCH.]
RAFAEL NADAL: In which way?
Q. To play less in the spring. [TRANSLATION: YOU PLAYED TOO MUCH TENNIS, GREEDILY SNATCHING UP TROPHIES AT ACAPULCO, SAO PAULO, INDIAN WELLS, BARCELONA, MADRID, ROME AND ROLAND GARROS IN YOUR 46-2 COMEBACK FROM A LEFT KNEE INJURY. AND NOW YOU'RE PAYING FOR IT AT WIMBLEDON.]
RAFAEL NADAL: To play less?
Q. Yes. [TRANSLATION: YES.]
RAFAEL NADAL: I cannot predict the future. I cannot say when I do a calendar if it was wrong or if it was positive. Since six hours ago was a perfect calendar, now is a very negative calendar. That's not true.
Darcis, meanwhile, credited his serve (13 aces to Rafa's 6) and his resolve to "do something today" with his unexpected triumph.
"I think today I serve very good. I could use a lot of slice. And I think he didn't like it so much," he said.
"Of course, he didn't play his best tennis. But I knew it is the first match on grass for him. Me, I played already four. So I think it helped me today."
Haters, I zeroed in on what Darcis said he did to prepare mentally for his match with one of the greatest players of the sport. He said it was "easy." He actually used that word. EASY>
"Nobody was expecting me to win," he said. "So I had to play a good match, relax, and enjoy the game. That's what I did."
Huh. Nobody expects ME to win. Even me. Ah, but there's more from Zen Master Darcis:
"But I really wanted to do something today. You know, if you go on the court, if you try to have fun, it's not the good point. So I really try to fight. I knew I could have a chance if I play a good match. That's what happened today."
One can get TOO relaxed in a lop-sided match and giggle your way right into the locker room. You still have to want to win. You still have to be willing to fight, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, to chant a favorite sports cliche during changeovers.
Darcis will need to keep chanting. He faces Lukasz Kubot of Poland next. And he could see John Isner or veteran Lleyton Hewitt in the Round of 16, should he beat his personal best and get past the third round in a Grand Slam.