As tall as Lukas Rosol is (the man is listed as 6’5″ in the official ATP records), the moment still seemed likely to dwarf him. Playing a Grand Slam match, on the hallowed turf of Centre Court, against one of the greatest champions in tennis history – surely he would cave sooner or later? We just knew that the player ranked No. 100 in the world wouldn’t be able to close out the second set; we knew he wouldn’t be able to maintain his nerve and serve out the third take a two-sets-to-one-lead; we knew he would collapse in the face of Rafael Nadal‘s fourth-set charge; we knew he wouldn’t be able to keep holding his serve all the way to the finish line after getting an early break in the fifth. Until we didn’t. This wasn’t an ‘upset’. It was a negation of everything we thought we knew about the game of tennis.
Three years ago, Robin Soderling shocked the world by defeating Nadal in the French Open fourth round, which to this day remains Nadal’s only loss at Roland Garros. And while that match still qualifies as the Upset of the Century, it did have a few mitigating factors: Soderling, with his power-packed groundstrokes and thunderous serve, had always been considered a distinct threat to any player on a good day, and Nadal was clearly far from being fully fit in the tournament. But Rosol’s 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win over Nadal yesterday seemingly has no justification. Yes, Rosol did play out of his mind, and Nadal was nowhere close to his best, but since when did trivial things like those matter in Grand Slam matches involving the (arguably) greatest competitor in history? We know now that it did happen – that a player with just 18 match wins in a career spanning 8 years turned the tables on a player with 11 Grand Slams to his name – but even 12 hours after the fact, it’s hard to pinpoint how or why it happened.
We can always try, of course. The stats say that it was a clean match – Rosol hit 65 winners to 29 unforced errors, while Nadal hit a slightly-less-impressive but still solid 41 winners to 16 unforced errors. But the stats don’t tell the whole story; they never do. I can’t say that I’ve watched all of Nadal’s grasscourt matches, but I feel certain that this must qualify among his worst performances on turf. Nadal was jittery and uncertain all day; it’s tough to really tell why that would be the case in a second-round match against a rank outsider, but there it was. His shots seemed to lack their usual conviction – at one point he was slicing everything off his backhand – and even his movement seemed unsure. The way he was slipping and sliding on the slick surface, and struggling to come over his backhand to put himself in a position to hit with topspin, made it difficult to believe that this was the same man who had reached five consecutive Wimbledon finals. His forehand leaked errors at the most inopportune of times; regulation crosscourt shots were pulled wide, and his patented inside-out bombs found the net. Even when he squeaked out the first set (after saving 2 set points), his body language never gave the impression that he was in control of his game. Just about the only thing that was working for Nadal was his serve, but considering how well Rosol was serving at the other end, that didn’t really count for much.
Wait a minute – did I say that Rosol was merely ‘serving well’? He was serving from a freaking tree, that’s what he was. Almost every small look that Nadal got in Rosol’s service games was snuffed out by a big unreturnable. His serving stats – 67% first serves in, 22 aces, 83% first serve points won – may sound fairly unfrightening, but I guess this is one of thsoe things that you had to watch live to truly appreciate. At no stage in the match (except, perhaps, for a brief period in the fourth set) did Nadal look capable of making a serious dent in Rosol’s serve. But that wasn’t the only thing going for Rosol. On the few occasions that Nadal did get the serve back in play, Rosol unleashed another weapon – the big forehand. To say that Rosol ‘went for it’ on his forehand would be an obscene understatement. Rosol threw everything he had on this shot; he hit it flat, hard, deep, and usually within inches of the lines. The usually fleet-footed Nadal seemed to be desperately lunging to retrieve every shot during the rallies, and gasping hard for breath after them. That Rosol managed to find the lines so unerringly, and so often, was perhaps even more staggering than Nadal’s sub-par play. At one point I thought to myself, “He’s got to start missing sooner or later; there’s a reason he’s ranked No. 100 in the world”. I have never been more wrong.
So there you have it – Rosol played lights-out tennis and Nadal played several notches below his usual level – a combination usually enough to manufacture an upset. But still, this was Nadal we were talking about; more importantly, the opponent on the other side of the net was not a talented youngster with a lot of potential, but a journeyman who had spent years of futility trying to break into the top 50, and who had never played a Wimbledon main draw match before this year. When Nadal wrapped up the fourth set, accompanied by a series of passionate fist-pumps and cries of ‘Vamos!’, you got the feeling that a bagel set was coming up. How many times had we seen this before? Lower-ranked player plays out of his mind, taking the lead against the accomplished opponent, only to leave the door slightly ajar and let the champion come roaring back in the match. But that’s when something else, something that had nothing to do with either of the players, happened: the light got too bad to continue playing, and the referee decided to close the roof. A 30-minute break was called, and Nadal’s borderline mournful reaction at the decision said it all: all the momentum from his fourth set win would likely come to nothing, and Rosol’s serve would probably gain even more potency in the quick indoor conditions. Both of those possibilities came true when they resumed play – Nadal, his concentration disrupted, was broken immediately, Rosol started serving bombs left, right and center, and the door had been shut on the champion for good.
How bad a loss was this for Nadal? His comments after the match suggest that he isn’t taking the loss badly at all. ”You play against an inspired opponent and I am out. That’s all. Is not a tragedy. Is only a tennis match,” he said. ”At the end, that’s life. There is much more important things. Sure, I wanted to win, but I lost.” While that’s certainly an admirable approach to take, Nadal’s behavior during the match seemed to suggest that he wanted the win almost too badly; that he was more rattled by his opponent’s sizzling play than he would have liked. At one point during the match, Nadal complained to the umpire that Rosol’s up-and-down movements as he was preparing to return serve (something that is also done by Nadal’s countryman and good friend David Ferrer) were distracting and ‘not fair’. At another point, Nadal bumped into Rosol while they crossed paths during the changeover, a move that Rosol later described as ‘wrong’ and unworthy of Centre Court. Nadal also took issue with the roof-closing; he said later in his press conference that the closing process shouldn’t take longer than 5-10 minutes. No, none of these actions by Nadal were unlawful; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to even label them unsportsmanlike. But the Spaniard’s less-than-composed demeanor showcased the fighter in him, even if it did that a little less flattering light than normal. Nadal is a two-time Wimbledon champion and a tennis great by all accounts; he wasn’t about to suffer a second-set loss to an unheralded opponent without taking the fight to its most bitter, unsavory end. Unfortunately for him, though, even his most cussed efforts were not enough on this day.
And how could they be? He was, after all, playing an opponent who was in the middle of the form of his life. Rosol may be a journeyman, he may be an underachiever, heck, he may even be relatively untalented. But on this day, he focused every last fiber of his body to forge the greatest moment of his life. As he withstood the pressure of being on the verge of the most important victory of his career and nervelessly struck one big serve and laser forehand after another, he gave the impression that he wasn’t a journeyman, but a supremely talented, mentally unshakable champion instead. That is what it takes to defeat Nadal at Wimbledon, and that is what Rosol produced.