Man from nowhere sends Nadal home
HAD it happened on Centre Court, where twice he has communed with the gods of his game and, on one occasion, beat Roger Federer in the final some believe the greatest match ever played, the fall of Rafa Nadal here might have been a little more wrenching.
But here we are discussing the finest of degrees.
If you were in Court One yesterday, the likelihood is you are still numb from the impact of his three-set defeat by a slight figure from nowhere, with thinning hair, baggy pants and a manner which would have seemed mild enough if he had been attending a social evening at the neighbourhood tennis club.
Yet sometimes something quite astonishing happens in the lives of relatively ordinary men.
They have one moment that persuades them that perhaps they might just do something that will always be remembered. And then they add to that something with equally remarkable boldness and, then before they know it, they are no longer men from nowhere.
They are, like 29-year-old Steve Darcis from Liege, men who will always carry more than a little substance right down to the last of their days.
Darcis, ranked 135th in the world and whose greatest achievement before stepping out on the grey and chilly Wimbledon afternoon was to beat the formidable Czech Tomas Berdych in a round of the Olympics last year, will now always be known as the man who stopped Nadal in the middle of one the greatest, most inspired comebacks tennis had ever seen.
He did it in two hours 55 minutes of astonishing self-belief and you were bound to ask from where it came.
Maybe it was a beautifully delicate backhand that skipped along the line as though it was sprinkled with stardust. Or an ace slipped into a growing stream of confident tennis.
Whatever its source, Darcis had new strength and a willingness to forget the stature of the man across the net in favour of a growing conviction being voiced by thousands of new fans. It said that he too could play, at least one afternoon in his life, some quite extraordinary tennis.
So many times Nadal, who had come back from a grey, aching seven months of pain and rehabilitation of chronically troublesome knees to win the prize he has virtually made his own, the French Open on the red clay of Paris, seemed to be reasserting himself.
Yet each time Nadal found some of his most basic strength, a withering cross-court forehand, a virtuoso swoop at the net, Darcis summoned up a response. He played shots that became as decisive as anything Nadal could produce and as the match wore on to its climax, the body language of the Belgian grew ever more positive.
He had come on to the court almost sheepishly, rushing ahead of his opponent as though to leave the ground between the great hero and his public quite untouched by any other presence, but in two tie-breaks and in the face of a desperate attempt by Nadal to fight his way out of trouble in the third set he was utterly unmoved. For a little while at least he had lost his anonymity and it was nothing he was about to accept back without the fight of his life.
Towards the end, Nadal, who had familiar strapping on his left knee, began to show a hint of hobbling, perhaps confirming the suspicions of many that he might indeed suffer the effects of his comeback from the crisis which engulfed him here last year with a second-round defeat by the equally unheralded Lukas Rosol.
But the man from Majorca showed no inclination to question, or devalue, the meaning of his conqueror's 7-6 7-6 6-4 victory. Some days you might just light up the sky with the quality of your play, as he certainly did when he beat Federer in that unforgettable final of 2008, and on others you might feel that a tide is flowing against you. Maybe a man from nowhere has identified himself as a serious opponent ready to ride the moment and the day.
Nadal said: "It happens that this is sport. Sometimes you play well and have the chance to win. Sometimes you play worse and the opponent plays well and you lose. That is a good thing about sport and times like this it is all you can say. It is not the right day (for me).
"I tried my best out there every moment, but it was not possible for me this afternoon.
"The opponent played well and I had my chances but I couldn't make it."
Darcis could make it in any way that was required. As the evidence mounted that Nadal's frustration was running bone deep, the Belgian found buoyancy that could not have been imagined when he made his self-effacing entrance.
He punched the air when the winning points began to accumulate around the pivotal moments.
On numerous occasions Nadal produced reminders of the great force of his game, the superb timing and resilience and flashpoints of power guaranteed to drain the confidence of any opponent, right up to Federer and Novak Djokovic. Yet, quite stunningly, Darcis absorbed them and then responded in kind.
Increasingly, the shoulders of Nadal began to wilt. As he pointed out later, he had feared the return to grass because of the need to reach lower and put more stress on his embattled knees.
What he could not have anticipated, not in the worst mood of foreboding, was that he should encounter a man as inspired and as fearless as Steve Darcis.
According to his own modest view of himself, Darcis had entered his name for a second-tier Challenger tournament in the wake of his brief Wimbledon appearance. He would taste a little of the big sporting life, he would brush against the demigod Nadal, and then he would go about the business of eking out a living.
It was the destiny, after all, of the man in the baggy pants and the thinning hair, and it was before he made his run from nowhere. (© Independent News Service)