Firepower, Focus, and Hubris

by: Peter Bodo | June 28, 2012

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Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON—In the end it isn't really all that complicated, and occasionally the tennis gods send someone to remind us of this: If you hit the ball hard enough and clean enough, and feel no fear or inhibition, you can beat anybody. You can actually see this truism play out quite often, but very rarely to the detriment of the very best players, in the very biggest of events, at the most unexpected of times.

But that's just what happened today, as Lukas Rosol, a 26-year-old ranked No. 100 and hoping to win back-to-back tour level matches for just the second time in his career, basically blasted two-time champion and world No. 2 Rafael Nadal off Centre Court, in a deadly, three-hour and 18-minute, five-set demonstration of firepower, other-worldly focus, and undiluted hubris. It was, in Rosol's own words, "Like a B-team from the Czech Republic beating Real Madrid."

Rosol's forehand blasts and 130 M.P.H. serves, lethal enough to begin with, echoed like cannon shots in the fifth set, after the Centre Court roof was closed at the conclusion of the fourth. It was a thunderdome, and Rosol seemed to take inspiration from it. Just why Rosol, a long, lean, ace machine tonight, but one whose career record in ATP-level events is now 19-32 (compared to Nadal's 583-122), was able to accomplish what he did tonight will be explained, but never adequately. I guess that's one of the reasons they play all these matches; you never know where lightning will strike. Or whom. 

Whatever the case, the stat sheet confirms that this earth-shattering result was many things, but not inexplicable. That's the less mysterious facet of all this. On an evening when both men put 67 percent of their first serves into the box, Rosol hit 22 aces to an only slightly less impressive 19 by Nadal. Rosol's fastest serve (134 M.P.H.) was just four ticks quicker than Nadal's best. Rosol had far more winners for sure: 65 to 41. But that was balanced by the fact that he made 29 unforced errors to Nadal's 16. All of which confirms that the match was on Rosol's racquet all the way, and that his most impressive weapon probably was the ability to look across the net and see not an icon but just another beatable opponent. He traveled a long way in this three-hour match, before which his expectations were, in his own words, "To play three good sets, don't lose six-zero, six-one, six-one."

Nadal was tight and lacking in "inspiration" in the first three sets, played in the open Centre Court. As he said in his presser, "I played bad and my return wasn't work very well. I think my serve worked well, but I played with little bit less energy than other times."

After finding his game in the fourth set, Nadal and Rosol had to leave the court in the gathering dusk until the roof was closed (to enable artificial lighting), and the "moisture management" system activated to do its dehumidifying work. The entire process takes 30 to 45 minutes, and that took Nadal by surprise. "I was very surprised for that. My feeling was, is completely new stadium with new roof, so the normal thing is cover the roof in five, 10 minutes. That was my thought."

You might have expected Nadal to know this, but in all honesty it might not have mattered anyway. For during the break Rosol took a shower, consulted with his coach, and returned to the court a different, more potent man—more dangerous even than the uninhibited risk taker who had won two of the first three sets.

"When I came back to the court, I was somewhere else," he said. "It was just like a dream for me. . . I was in a trance a little bit. That's best. I had my adrenaline so high, so I was playing good."

Reflecting on how the roof closure affected the match, Nadal said, "For sure wasn't the best (decision) for me.  But that's what it is and accept. Accept that, and that he came back and played unbelievable the fifth. I was playing well in the fourth. I think I played a great fourth set. Sure the stop this time didn't help me. That's the sport. That's it."

There was an incident in the middle of the match in which Nadal allegedly jostled Rosol on a changeover, and I mention it only because it may help explain why Rosol himself seemed so puffed up in the fifth set, so conspicuously unwilling to play at Nadal's pace—or in any other way defer to the champion. If anything, his demeanor became increasingly aggressive as the fifth set went on, and he scorched the grass and made the chalk fly with impunity in an orgy of nearly mindless, instinctive hitting.

After the final changeover, as Rosol prepared to serve for the match, he stood at the baseline, chin thrust out, staring hard down at Nadal. But the almost-beaten champ wouldn't take the bait; he knew he had more serious things to worry about than the mental agitations of his opponent. Nadal kept his head down, spread his feet wide in that trademark receiver's crouch, and prepared for the worst. He soon got it. Rosol ended the final game swiftly and brutally, starting and ending it the same way. With an ace.

The moment that final unreturnable flew by Nadal, Rosol tossed his racquet, which bounced helter-skelter into and over the net. He fell to his knees and then lay for a few moments on the court. Nadal waited patiently at the net. His instinct to do the right thing, to be a decent, humble fellow kicked in then. Nadal walked over and picked up Rosol's racquet and handed it to him when they met to shake hands.

It was a little bit like pulling the spear from your chest and giving it back to the man who put it there, but nevermind. It was merely the final improbable moment of an unbelievable night.

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