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.
However, he failed to play a grass-court warm-up event after withdrawing from Halle, Germany, and it showed as he looked way short of his best against Darcis, who seized his chance in ruthless fashion.
“At the end it’s not a tragedy. That is sport,” Nadal told reporters, refusing to discuss his physical well-being. “The only thing that I can say today is congratulate Steve Darcis. He played a fantastic match.”
Darcis turned professional two years after Nadal and, while the Spaniard’s career has been spent in the stratosphere, he has inhabited a level more in keeping with Belgium’s lowlands.
However, proving just how deep the talent pool is in the men’s game he played three incredible sets of risk-taking tennis to scale the heights on Centre Court.
He did beat Tomas Berdych at the Olympics last year, on the same court, but topped that display against Nadal to record only his second win against a player in the top 10.
Darcis, who has a shark tattoo on his arm, said his first reaction on seeing the draw was: “Shit,” but there was no hint of inferiority as he outplayed the 2008 and 2010 champion.
“Maybe he [Nadal] didn’t play his best match, but I have to be proud of me, I think,” Darcis said. “I played a great match and I fought from the beginning till the end, and I played unbelievable tennis.”
Murray’s no-nonsense victory over Becker was the only home success, with the other six British players in action on Monday all losing.
His potential quarter-final foe, sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, beat Belgium’s David Goffin 7-6 (7/4), 6-4, 6-3.
As the light faded, former champion Lleyton Hewitt showed the fire in his belly burns as bright as ever when he took out 11th seed Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets to give a boost to Australian spirits after a week of cricket and rugby union woes.
“It’s good that I can put on some sort of show, that they can get pretty pumped up out there,” Hewitt said.
In yesterday’s early matches, Serena Williams delivered a statement that no one can argue with: When her powerful serve is clicking, she’s still the woman to beat at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Williams looked every bit the five-time champion as she began her title defense with a routine 6-1, 6-3 victory over Mandy Minella of Luxembourg.
As usual on grass, the top-ranked Williams dominated with her hard serve, winning the first set without dropping a single point on her service game. Her main weapon let her down only at the start of the second set, when Minella was able to take a 2-0 lead when Williams double-faulted on break point.
She was one point from going down 3-0, but then won 15 of the next 18 points to take a 4-2 lead and broke again to wrap up the win.
“For me, it’s the greatest moment for a tennis player, to walk out on Centre Court,” Williams said after her first match at Wimbledon since winning Olympic gold last year. “That was such a great moment too. So many great memories on this court.”
Earlier, 42-year-old Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm had an even easier time getting past an opponent, German teenager Carina Witthoeft, less than half her age, 6-0, 6-2 in just 44 minutes.
Date-Krumm is the second oldest player to have won a match at Wimbledon after Martina Navratilova, who was 47 when she reached the second round in 2004. The 18-year-old Witthoeft was making her Grand Slam debut.
Sixth seed Li Na of China also cruised into the second round, beating Michaella Krajicek of the Netherlands 6-1, 6-1.
In the men’s singles, Japan’s Kei Nishikori cruised into the second round as the 12th seed crushed Australian wild-card Matthew Ebden 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
Nishikori last year became the first Japanese man to reach the third round since 1995 and he has set his sights even higher this time.
The Florida-based star needed only 1 hour, 41 minutes on Court 14 and he next faces Argentine world No. 84 Leonardo Mayer, who defeated Aljaz Bedene 6-2, 6-3, 6-4.