Hard to make sense of Nadal loss

WIMBLEDON, England -- Two days before his first match at the All England Club, Rafael Nadal struggled to find some semblance of concentration.

Saturday on Court No. 14, he sprayed forehands randomly wide and long, while hitting partner Kevin Anderson watched with a tangible degree of discomfort. Rafa's coach, his Uncle Toni, watched with crossed arms and offered whispered suggestions in Spanish.

There were times when it appeared he was limping.

A few hours later he was asked about his first-round opponent, a Belgian journeyman named Steve Darcis, who is ranked 135th among ATP World Tour players.

"He's a good, talented player," Nadal said, rather predictably. "He knows how to play tennis in all the surfaces. He has good shots. I say he is a complete player. I have to play well.

"In this surface, on grass, all the matches are close. 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."

He discovered this a year ago, when Czech Lukas Rosol, another journeyman, stunned Nadal in the second round here. But that match went five sets and well past three hours. And afterward Nadal left tennis for more than seven months with a serious left knee injury. Last month in Paris, Rafa dropped the first set in his first two matches -- against formidable top-60 players -- but won both in four on his way to the title at Roland Garros.

In retrospect, given the injury, these events made a certain kind of sense. But how to explain this? How to make sense of what happened on Court No. 1 on Monday when Darcis beat the eight-time French Open champion?

The score was 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4, and it was punctuated by a terrific ace down the middle (his 13th of the match).

What on earth happened?

"Sometimes you play well and have the chance to win," Nadal said later, "and sometimes you play worse and lose. That's all. At the end, it's not a tragedy, it's the sport."

Nadal declined to actually say he was injured, but essentially admitted he was: "Is not the right day. I tried my best out there in every moment. It was not possible for me this afternoon."

Later, he added: "I don't want to talk about my knee this afternoon. All I want to say is congratulations to Steve Darcis. Anything I say about my knee is an excuse."

"Pheewww," Darcis said in his immediate off-court interview with the BBC, vibrating his lips in almost comic fashion. "I don't know what to say right now.

"I am very happy."

He should be. He was the second alternate into the tournament and sneaked into the main draw when several players withdrew.

Darcis, who is 29, was utterly fearless throughout. He crafted only one more break point than Nadal but hung terribly tough against the two-time Wimbledon champion in the two tiebreakers.

And there is something about the grass here that agrees with Darcis. He has only two victories over top-10 players in his career, and both of them came at Wimbledon; last year he beat Tomas Berdych at the London Olympics.

For Nadal, the loss was:

• His first in the first round in 35 career Grand Slam tournaments. He was the last former No. 1 player to enter this dubious category.

• His worst ever at a Grand Slam tournament, supplanting last year's defeat to Rosol.

• The first time in 16 years the reigning Roland Garros champion lost in the first round at Wimbledon, going back to Gustavo Kuerten in 1997.

In the final analysis, Nadal clearly sacrificed his Wimbledon tournaments the past two years to win the French Open.

He seemed to have trouble moving against Darcis and appeared to be limping at times. The look on his face was troubled, very similar to the appearance of doubt and anxiety he brought to his only loss at Roland Garros, four years ago to Robin Soderling.

Coming into this tournament, Rafa was the hottest player in tennis. Since returning in February, he played in nine tournaments and reached nine finals. He won seven of them. He was off to a career-best start of 43-2 and had won 22 consecutive matches.

And to think that one of the leading storylines heading into the tournament was Nadal's No. 5 seeding, which threw the men's lower half of the draw into chaos.

Now there will be no first-time major quarterfinal between Nadal and Roger Federer.

A year ago, Nadal's second-round departure led to a seven-month sabbatical. How long will this one be?

"Not very late," Nadal said, sort of smiling. "Not that late, for sure."

Toward the end of the 15-minute session, Nadal became a little emotional.

"Two weeks ago, I was in a fantastic situation, winning at Roland Garros," he said. "Now, losing in the first round, it's tough.

"The tour continues. Life continues. This is a sport of victories, not a sport of losses. Nobody remembers the losses. I don't want to remember the loss."