By Bill Simons
You have to love tennis.
No change that. You must love tennis.
Just when you think you get it, you grasp it, you understand it, it says—no, it shouts— “No way!”
An example: In Paris, we thought Serena Williams was becoming a thoughtful, reflective woman. Then she tosses a crass verbal bomb or two in an explosive Rolling Stone interview and we have to think it all out once again.
On the men’s side, Rafael Nadal crafted an astounding comeback from a seven-month hiatus due to a wounded knee.
The well-muscled, mild-mannered Mediterranean had swept to victory in seven of the tourneys he played this year, and reached the finals in the other two. Can you say amazing comeback?
This was a man apart. Confident, moving with an easy athleticism, defending as if he was in the last fox hole, he took the sport by storm. The man with the bulging biceps seemed to make time stand still.
At Roland Garros, Nadal’s dipping forehand was a howitzer which punished. His backhand was more than unfriendly. His defense was a wonder. He refused to lose to his ace rival, Novak Djokovic (who so dearly wanted a Paris win), and he dismissed his pal David Ferrer in the French final. Beaming and generous, humble and real, he nonetheless had a swagger and a curious sneer: don’t mess with Rafa.
Federer, Murray, Djokovic: We love you. But that Spanish lad was imposing his will.
Nadal’s eight Roland Garros titles and his 57-1 record at the tournament made a tennis statement like few others, perhaps even unmatched.
Sages began to suggest that Rafa, with his 12 Slam victories, was well within striking distance of Pete Sampras’ total of 14 titles and even Federer’s record of 17. John McEnroe said he was beginning to wonder whether Rafa was the best of all time. Many thought that with all of his confidence and his ability to switch from clay to grass (a gift unlike any other clay meister in history,) the former world No. 1 player and two-time Wimbledon champion might be the favorite to prevail at the All England Club.
When Nadal was seeded No. 5, there was a collective “you cannot be serious” gasp. To make matters worse, the draw slated Nadal to face Federer in the quarters. But at least Rafa would have an easy first round.
Steve Darcis’ nickname is the Shark. To some it was like the diminutive Ken Rosewall being called Muscles. The Belgian was hardly a feared ATP predator. More of a journeyman extraordinaire, he did manage to gain a top-ten win over Tomas Berdych in the first round at last year’s Olympics, but he had never beaten a player in the top five. His career has been full of outer-court losses, and he’d only won two matches on the ATP main circuit this year. (He did have ample wins at such outback venues as Ostravia and Bordeaux, and he’d reached the semis at the Quimper Challenger. That’s in France.)
Wretched injuries, bungee-like free falls in the rankings, and personal headaches have all been part of a six-year career that has earned Darcisjust a little over $300,000. Going in to today, Darcis had won just one Wimbledon match and had never gotten beyond the third round in a Slam.
To many, it seemed clear was this would be a slam dunk for Nadal. His Wimbledon problems would show up soon enough, but at least he would be able to ease into the tournament.
Not so fast. Yes, the 5’ 10” Darcis has thinning hair, a modest frame, and looks extremely average on court. But he knew this was Nadal’s first match on grass this year. It was the Belgian’s fourth, and from the start, he played with a shocking confidence, adept movement, and a nice arsenal: flowing one-handed backhand (not unlike that of Justine Henin, who, like Darcis, is from Leige, Belgium), effective forehand, and an effective slice serve.
When he first saw the draw, Darcis, ranked No. 113, offered a four-letter expletive that rhymes with hit. But today he played some poetic tennis and wasn’t taking anything at all that rhymed with hit.
Instead he hit winners, won the first-set tiebreak, held off Nadal when the Spaniard had a pivotal set point in the second-set tiebreak, and watched as Rafa simply dumped a limp backhand midway into the net.
English fans munching on egg salad sandwiches or looking dapper in their stunning pinstripe suits murmured in disbelief. Surely Rafa would counterattack. Let the definitive comeback begin!
It never did.
Yes, Rafa had lost the opening sets of his first two matches in Paris. And Steve Darcis was hardly a big, zoning power baller like Robin Soderling at the ’09 French Open, or Lukas Rosol in the second round here last year. And there were no pesky rain delays and no injuries. Well, no clearly apparent injuries. For Rafa, who didn’t play any warm-up tournaments, clearly was not the imposing wonder he is on clay. Not in the flow, unsure in his shotmaking, he dumped simple backhands, botched drop shots, and watched as his beloved forehand flew wild.
Rafa was broken in the first game of the third set.
“Come on Steve!”, came a booming American voice from the rafters. Soon a Spanish fan answered, calling out “Rafa” with a rolling “R.”
But ultimately it was Rafa who got rolled, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4. Gone were the Spaniard’s hopes of becoming only the second man in the Open Era to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon back-to-back on three occasions. Gone were any thoughts of a dreamy Nadal vs. Federer quarterfinal, or the possibility that Nadal would roll on through the season like some kind of reinvigorated juggernaut. The mighty Rafa hadn’t lost to a player with such a low ranking since 2006.
Rather, he is so good that his shock losses seem like calamities and he certainly has a penchant for them. (His loss in the second round last year was to another player with a triple digit ranking.) But Rafa was calm afterwards. “Just congratulate the opponent,” he said. “At the end is not a tragedy. That is sport.”
And that’s tennis, a sport that defies logic and refuses to dial in the obvious. After all, Rafa will soon be out fishing in the Mediterranean fishing for sharks, because on this day he was bit on Court One by a modest Belgian shark who forgot to follow the program which would have informed him that he was just another ATP wannabe going up against a legend—a legend who once again is heading home before we ever really got to see him.