From a green and pleasant land, Wimbledon’s grass courts must now resemble a minefield for Rafael Nadal, who, for the second year in a row on Monday, suffered a shock defeat by a modest opponent playing the match of his life.
A year after Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic ambushed the 12-time Grand Slam champion in the second round, Nadal came up against inspired Belgian Steve Darcis in the first and was soundly beaten 7-6 (7/4) 7-6 (10/8) 6-4.
At least against Rosol twice former champion Nadal went down fighting in five sets, but world No. 135 Darcis subdued arguably the sport’s most ferocious competitor in routine fashion.
The 29-year-old from Liege, nicknamed “The Shark,” nailed an ace to send Nadal heading home to Mallorca with a first Grand Slam opening-round defeat against his name.
Defeat for fifth seed Nadal was a blow for the tournament, but a huge fillip for defending champion Roger Federer whose odds of securing an eighth Wimbledon title were slashed in half.
British hopes of a first men’s winner since 1936 also soared on the back of Nadal’s exit as second seed Andy Murray posted a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Germany’s Benjamin Becker.
Murray next faces Taiwan’s Lu Yen-hsun, who made the second round by defeating another Briton, wild-card James Ward, in four sets 6-7 (4/7), 6-4, 7-6 (13/11), 7-6 (7/5).
Lu hopes to draw inspiration from his 2008 Olympics victory over Murray when he clashes with the world No. 2 for a place in the third round.
Lu, the world No. 75, has no fear of the big stage. As well as defeating Murray in Beijing, the 29-year-old also stunned three-time Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in 2010, but he admits that Murray, the reigning US Open and Olympic champion, is a better, wiser player than the man he beat in China.
“It’ll be very tough for me. He has just won Queen’s and also he’s No. 2 in the world,” Lu said. “Fortunately, I had a good result a few years ago, but I will just try my best to bring my best performance against him. We’ll see how it goes.”
“If you’re asking me right now do I expect to beat him, I say not, but for me, I just try to do my best and I can challenge him,” he said.
Murray, the runner-up to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final, defeated Lu at Indian Wells in straight sets earlier this year and Lu admits that the Scot has developed into one of the world’s great players.
“He has improved. He has won a Grand Slam, won the Olympics. I am happy about five years ago, but that’s just far back and I have to face the real match on Wednesday,” Lu said.
Lu also hopes for a little crowd sympathy when they meet.
“I’m really happy that the people always support him. For me, of course, I hope 1 percent or 2 percent support me,” he said.
Women’s third seed Maria Sharapova let her tennis do the talking as she put aside a verbal spat with world No. 1 Serena Williams to beat Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic 7-6 (7/5), 6-3.
For the second year running Nadal’s defeat left a huge hole in the men’s draw and raised inevitable questions about the state of the 27-year-old’s knees.
After the defeat by Rosol last year he was sidelined for seven months, before returning in February this year.
His comeback has been nothing short of spectacular with seven titles in nine tournaments, including this month at the French Open where he became the first man to win a single Grand Slam tournament eight times.