"Today Happened"

by: Steve Tignor | June 28, 2012

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LR"When you first came to England, if someone had come up to you and said that you would beat Rafael Nadal in five, what would you say?”

Lukas Rosol: “Good question.”


By the end of the fifth set, Lukas Rosol was doing something funny as he bent down to get into his return stance. He was taking shadow swipes with his forehand, over and over, as he waited for Rafael Nadal to serve. The Czech, ranked 100th in the world, had done it periodically through their second-round match, but there was a menacing quality to the motion now, or at least it must have seemed that way to Nadal. Rosol appeared to be so dialed in on his forehand, so deep in his own zone, so ready, that he couldn’t stop himself from taking his cuts, even before the point had begun. 

“Today I was somewhere else,” Rosol said after his 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win, the biggest Wimbledon upset since two-time defending champion Boris Becker lost to Peter Doohan in the same round in 1987. “I still can’t believe it. It’s like a dream for me. . . . In the fifth set I don’t feel anything.”

Rosol talked so quickly that he almost sputtered, as if he were just trying to get the words out of the way, as if nothing he said was possibly going to do justice to how he had played or how he felt now.

"A dream," he called it. Could the 26-year-old Rosol really have dreamed of something like this, of beating Nadal in one of the most fearless fifth-set displays in history, on a covered Centre Court reverberating with cheers? In his last five trips to Wimbledon, Rosol had lost in the first-round of the qualifiers each time. You could call him a journeyman, if his journeys to tournaments hadn’t been so short.

Asked what his expectations were coming into the match, Rosol said, “Just to play three good sets, you know. Just don’t lose 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.”

In one sense, this was a freak loss for Nadal. He had reached the Wimbledon final the last five times he had played the event, and he hadn’t gone out this early at any Grand Slam since 2005. But right from the start, from before the warm-up began, you could see that Rosol had come, as they say, to play, and he wasn’t going to be intimidated by his opponent, the location, or the moment. After the coin toss, Nadal did his traditional zig-zag sprint back to the baseline. Rosol may have been the first player I’ve seen who did the same thing on the other side of the net. He wasn’t going to let Rafa own the energy in the building, the way he usually does.

From that point on, Rosol seemed to me to be a sort of greatest hits compilation of three past conquerors of Nadal—Robin Soderling, Ivan Dodig, and Juan Martin del Potro. 

—Like Soderling, the man who had handed Rafa his most shocking defeat before today, at the 2009 French Open, Rosol got under Nadal's skin. He did something that distracted Nadal before he served and caused him to complain to the chair umpire (neither player would say what it was; the umpire, Jake Garner, told John McEnroe that Nadal thought Rosol was breathing too loudly). The two bumped into each other on a changeover; Rosol said that Nadal apologized. Later, the Czech fist-pumped in Rafa’s direction after a few of his winning shots.

—Like Dodig in his win over Nadal in Toronto last summer, Rosol played quickly. By the fifth set, he was taking 10 seconds between service points. The same way that he didn’t allow Nadal to own the energy in the arena, he also didn’t all him to control the tempo of the match.

—Finally, like del Potro when he beat Rafa in 2009, Rosol took the ball on the rise on both sides and launched flat rockets that took Nadal’s time away. Rosol, like del Potro and Soderling, fits the profile of a player who can trouble Nadal. All of them are 6-foot-3 or taller, which means that Rafa's high-kicking topspin ends up in their strike zones.

Still, none of those things can quite explain what Rosol did at the end. “In the fifth set he played more than unbelievable, no?” Nadal said. “That’s what happens when you play against a player who is able to hit the ball very hard, hit the ball without thinking and feeling the pressure. When the opponent wants to play the way he wanted to play in the fifth, you are in his hands, no?”

RNNadal also said, rightly, that he had played poorly earlier, and that grass can be a crap shoot. 

“Playing on this surface,” he said, “these kinds of matches can happen. Today happened."

Nadal singled out his return as a liability, and said that for the first three sets he hadn't felt comfortable or been able to dictate points. In the past, he had escaped early-round five setters at Wimbledon because he had been able to find the key return, the key break, the key scrambling get that would turn the momentum in his direction. Today, though, fate was against him. When he finally did find that key shot in the fourth set—a brilliant defensive lob—and rolled from there to a 6-2 win, officials at Wimbledon decided to close the roof. It took 43 minutes; 43 minutes in which Nadal’s momentum fizzled, and Rosol apparently downed a dozen energy drinks and went online to sell his soul to the tennis devil. (Actually, Rosol said he took a shower after the fourth.)

“I was playing well in the fourth set,” Nadal said. “Sure the stop this time didn’t help me. That’s the sport. That’s it.” At Roland Garros, it had been his opponent, Novak Djokovic, who had his momentum stopped by a delay. Today it was Rafa.

By the end of the fifth set, things had turned around so completely that Rosol was jogging to the sidelines at changeovers and showing no fear of anything. About to serve for the match at 5-4, in what most players would have considered the most nerve-wracking moment of their lives, Rosol jumped off the sideline bench well before the umpire called time. He had no doubts about what was going to happen next: ace, forehand winner, ace, ace. Game, set, match.

“I didn’t feel anything," said Rosol, who plays Philipp Kohlschreiber next, in what might seem like the most precipitous letdown in tennis history. "I was in a trance a little bit. I had my adrenaline so high, so I was playing good.”

Nadal accepted it, and he accepted the disappointment that came with this loss rather than trying to hide it. He said going out in the second round was harder than having it happen later, because he never gave himself a chance to win the tournament. When one reporter asked if the defeat would make him hungrier for the Olympics, Nadal refused to take the bait, refused to spew cliches about how this would increase his motivation.

“If you think that,” Nadal said, “you don’t understand the sport. When you win you have more confidence for the next tournaments. Is not when you lose [that] you have more hunger. That’s not the true. When you are winning, you feel more confident. When you lose, the confidence is less. That’s for everybody.”

In a sense, this loss vindicates Nadal’s long held views about the perilous and unpredictable nature of sports, of competition, of tennis. It vindicates the careful, concerned, almost superstitious way that he approaches his early rounds against lesser players, and the way he won't name himself the favorite at Grand Slams. It’s an approach that has been ridiculed as falsely modest, but after this evening the world must agree with Rafa: Anything can happen. Today happened.

Lukas Rosol agrees. “It’s sport, nobody’s unbeaten,” he said after beating Rafael Nadal. “We’re just people. We’re just humans. Everybody can win.”

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