Flashbulbs lit up a leaden sky as Rafael Nadal crumbled to Centre Court after edging Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final. It was a match for the ages. Although Nadal has starred in epic grass-court masterpieces, his Wimbledon appearances have lasted as long as photo ops lately.
The victor of arguably the greatest match in tennis history has been the victim of massive upsets in each of the past two years. The two-time Wimbledon champion lost to 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol in the 2012 second round before enduring deeper ignominy last year with the first Grand Slam opening-round defeat of his career, to 135th-ranked Steve Darcis. The man who reached five straight Wimbledon finals and registered a 32-3 record from 2006-2011 could not contend with long shots calling the shots.
The world No. 1 has been both stirring and staggering at the grass-court Grand Slam. So which Nadal will we see at Wimbledon next week?
Consider that Nadal has reached the final in 12 of his past 15 Grand Slam tournaments, owns a .781 career winning percentage with three titles on grass and should be pumped to prevent another early exit.
Consider Nadal has not won a grass-court match since beating 80th-ranked Thomaz Bellucci in his 2012 opener and is 2-4 in his past six matches on turf. He was also blown off the court by 85th-ranked wild card Dustin Brown 6-4, 6-1 on the grass of Halle last week, which might have you think three-time quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez or 2013 quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco are the Spanish lefties most likely to go deep at The Championships.
Playing both sides of the court, here are three reasons Rafa will flop and three reasons he'll fly at Wimbledon next week.
1. Fast track, slow starts
Clay gives Nadal time to work the width of the court and construct points like a midfielder surveying a soccer pitch, while grass-court tennis can feel like speed chess in comparison -- things happen quickly. The transition from clay to grass takes time, and both big servers and shot-makers who can rush Rafa have given him trouble at Wimbledon, particularly in the early rounds. In 2006, then-world No. 236 Robert Kendrick took a two-set lead over Nadal before falling in five in the second round. Four years later, both Robin Haase (second round) and Philipp Petzschner (third round) held leads before Nadal rallied.
2. Squeeze play
Adapting from the Court Chatrier, one of the largest Grand Slam stages in the game, to the smaller space of Centre Court limits Nadal's room to run and diminishes the impact of his defense and counter strikes, compared to clay. Wimbledon's green lawn produces a ball bounce both faster and lower than Roland Garros’ crushed red brick, which makes it trickier for Nadal to time his topspin strokes while reducing their twisting, trampoline bounce that can torment opponents. "[Grass is] probably the toughest surface for me because I have to play in a lower position than in the rest of the surfaces," said Nadal, who does not change direction as sharply on grass.
3. Recovery room
Nadal played 21 clay-court matches in the couple months before play began at Roland Garros, but he's played just two grass-court matches in the past two years. He faces the challenge of revival from a demanding dirt season without the benefit of the recovery slide on grass that he brings to clay. Margins can be minuscule on grass, where funky bounces from worn-out patches -- combined with flat-hitting opponents -- can create shanks and deny Nadal the confidence and rhythm he craves from the repetition of rallies. "On grass, all the matches are close," he said. "Matches can be decided for a few balls. So if you are not 100 percent focused, and you're not at your 100 percent of energy and playing well, you are in big trouble."
1. All-surface skills
The 14-time Grand Slam champion is one of only four men in the Open era (Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer are the others) to sweep successive Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles in the same season; Nadal completed that rare double twice -- in both 2008 and 2010. Nadal is a champion for all surfaces because he adapts his game to the demands of each surface. He has displayed fine net skills, deployed the slice backhand to lure opponents forward, applied his ability to take the ball earlier and flattened out his shots to win Wimbledon in the past. His variety is a valuable resource on grass. "You try different things. You play different ways," Nadal said of transitioning to grass.
2. Refined return
Earlier in his career, Nadal's tendency to drop deep behind the baseline to return a serve made him vulnerable to the short-angled slice serve on grass. Today, he's much more comfortable adjusting both his return position and court position when necessary. Nadal puts so many returns in play and is so relentless in rallies that he can impose pressure with his return. He leads the ATP in return games won (38 percent), break points converted (50 percent), points won returning first serve (37 percent) and points won returning second serve (57 percent) -- all assets that can serve him well on a surface on which service breaks are at a premium.
3. Mind gain
The iconic champion has a reputation as one of the great fighters in sport for a reason. Typically, Nadal responds to Grand Slam challenges with the clarity Big Ben brings to ringing in the hour. Nadal is shrewd in making mid-match adjustments, altering service patterns and figuring out what opponents like least -- and feeding them exactly that on crucial points. If Nadal can survive those early danger rounds, he can swing freely without the pressure of defending ranking points as the tournament progresses. Shrugging off a straight sets loss to Lopez at the 2010 Queen's Club, Nadal did not drop a set in beating Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych back-to-back to claim his second Wimbledon crown. Nadal was a supreme problem solver in Paris earlier this month and will use those trouble-shooting skills to prevent another slip-up on the lawns of London.