For the most fleeting moment, the Wimbledon crowd was stunned. Rafael Nadal looked stunned, too. A little over 20 minutes into his quest for a third Wimbledon title, he had yet to win a game.
Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci's forehand resembled a hand grenade, Nadal's a loose cannon ballooning the ball out of play with a maddening consistency. Nadal trailed 4-0.
Partly this was first night nerves, partly the cold shock of facing a free-swinging opponent who had nothing to lose and knew it. By the time the end came in straight sets two hours later, Centre Court was on its feet in appreciation. But there was still an admission afterwards that he had been some way short of his best.
"Today I didn't play my best match," he said. "Especially in the first set, I played a little bit too nervous, a little bit not knowing exactly what to do. My movements were defensive, not aggressive. In the beginning I didn't really have the best feeling with my forehand."
But this is, by and large, what separates the conquerors from the conquered. Nadal has never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam, not lost in the first week of one since the 2005 US Open. Fear of defeat is not something he entertains. Every setback is a puzzle to be solved.
Here, it was the Bellucci forehand. Lining the ball up like a baseball slugger and flinging his racquet through the line with abandon, Bellucci targeted Nadal's backhand and dictated the baseline rallies. He had walked onto court with a plan. The tentative prodding and poking on the other side of the net suggested Nadal had not.
"I tried to find a solution to the problem that I had, tried to find a way to start playing better," Nadal said. Eventually he stopped feeding the Bellucci forehand, stepping a yard further back from the baseline to give him more time to sight the ball. Bellucci, unable to react to Nadal's tactical shift, began missing.
The pivotal moment came at 30-15 in the fifth game, when Bellucci flopped a backhand volley into the net when Nadal's pass may have been going out. Nadal broke, then broke again, eventually taking the first set on a tie-break. Bellucci realised he had been rumbled.
After taking the second set, courtesy of an inspired backhand lob, he wavered again in the third set, surrendering a 30-0 lead and a break of serve. But by this point, Bellucci's game was too riddled with errors to cement it. Nadal plays Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic next.
Andy Murray cruised into the second round by brushing aside Nikolay Davydenko 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. Murray broke Davydenko six times and never dropped his own serve. France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt of Australia 6-3 6-4 6-4. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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