WIMBLEDON, England — Rafael Nadal suffered his worst defeat at a Grand Slam in seven years on Thursday, losing to Lukas Rosol, 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 in the second round of Wimbledon. And yes, everyone in Southwest London (and all around the world) is still trying to understand what just happened.
If men’s tennis over the last five years has taught us anything, it’s that players ranked No. 100 in the world aren’t supposed to do this. For so long we have grown accustomed to seeing the Big Three of Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer make it not only to the second week of majors but also into the final weekend. If they’re going to lose, it’s to each other or a very small handful of players who have already proved they have the talent to pull it together for five sets on a big stage.
But they don’t lose to players ranked No. 100 in the world. Not until now.
Nadal took to Centre Court one minute after 6 p.m. local time for a seemingly routine match against Rosol, a guy who even the most dedicated of tennis cognoscenti would have to confess to not knowing much about (and Nadal actually had to ask reporters how old he was after the match). The 26-year-old Czech made his Wimbledon main draw debut this year after losing in the first round of qualifying the last five years. At 6-foot-5, Rosol has a stereotypically big game for a man his size: a booming cannon of a serve and a big forehand that he likes to hit with reckless abandon. I’ve seen Rosol play before, and though the power does wow you, his consistency leaves you shaking your head. After all, there’s a reason he’s ranked No. 100. He grips, he rips and, generally speaking, he misses more than he makes.
But on Thursday, he gripped, he ripped and he hit winners. He hit a lot of them — 65, to be exact. And there wasn’t a darn thing the 11-time Grand Slam champion could do about it.
“I didn’t feel pain. I didn’t feel anything,” Rosol told reporters after undoubtedly the best match of his career. “I was in a trance a little bit. That’s [the] best. I had my adrenaline so high, so I was playing good.”
There were signs of Rosol’s fearlessness early in the first set, as he broke Nadal back immediately in the sixth game after Nadal had secured a break advantage. Rosol continued to hold his nerve – and his serve — en route to a first-set tiebreaker. They traded set points in the tiebreaker, but on Nadal’s fourth set point, Rosol fired a big serve that Nadal sliced back short in the middle of the court. Rosol, being the fearless hitter that he is, went for a huge forehand put-away winner that he smacked into the middle of the net. Nadal, just as he did in his first-round match against Thomaz Bellucci, had escaped to take the first set.
Those are the kinds of missed opportunities that can haunt these lower-ranked players when everything seems to be coming together for them to pull off a monumental upset. But Rosol was, surprisingly, unfazed. He came out and broke Nadal in the first game of the second set, the only break he needed. Behind his powerful serve (he won 83 percent of his first-serve points), he went on to take the second set and kept the momentum going to take the third. Surely this guy was going to realize he had no business playing at this level for a sustained amount of time, right?
Yes, Rosol blinked. He played sloppily in the sixth game of the fourth set and Nadal broke for a 4-2 lead, letting out one of his patented double-lawnmower fist pumps. Nadal broke again to win the set 6-2 and pull even in the match.
But any momentum Nadal had wrenched back with that brutal display of defense was wiped out by one thing he couldn’t control: light. It was 8:45 p.m. when the fifth set was ready to begin and the referee’s office had already announced that they intended to play the match to its conclusion. That meant closing the roof in order to provide adequate lighting to the court. Because of the state-of-the art cooling system that needs to kick into place when the roof is closed, the players left the court and resumed play 30 minutes later.
“I think I played a great fourth set,” Nadal said. “Sure, the stop this time didn’t help me. That’s the sport. That’s it.”
Back on the court for the fifth set, Rosol broke Nadal immediately for a 1-0 lead. The upset watch was on. With the way Rosol was serving and striking the ball, the issue was whether he could hold his nerve. But the guy just got better as the set wore on, hitting shots that had no reply and effectively taking the racket out of Nadal’s hands.
“That’s what happens when you play against a player who is able to hit the ball very hard, hit the ball without thinking and feeling the pressure,” Nadal said. “At the end, when the opponent wants to play like he wanted to play in the fifth, you are in his hands, no?”
Winner after winner, ace after ace (he bombed down 22), Rosol kept his foot on the gas pedal and never let up. Ace. Forehand winner. Ace. Forehand winner. Game. That was the pattern of Rosol’s service games as he tried to protect his lead. The tension seemed to make him hit the ball even harder with every swing until finally he had a chance to serve out the match. Ace. Forehand winner. Ace. Ace. The upset was complete.
Players ranked No. 100 in the world aren’t supposed to do this. But Lukas Rosol did. And we’re all left trying to pick our jaws up off the floor.