The Miracle on Grass

by: Steve Tignor | December 21, 2012

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“Are you watching this?” 
That was, roughly speaking, the content of at least four text messages that I received on the afternoon of June 28th. I had briefly left my TV, and ESPN’s Wimbledon broadcast, behind to keep a doctor’s appointment. This is a risky proposition for a tennis writer in the middle of a Grand Slam; you never know when a bolt will come out of the blue, Razzano-like, and turn your working day upside down. But I thought I was in luck on this day. What surprise could possibly come out of the second-round match between Rafael Nadal and Lukas Rosol, which was up last on Centre Court? Granted, Rafa hadn’t looked good in his first-round win over Thomaz Bellucci. But after his near-perfect spring and Roland Garros title, he was still my pick to win his third Wimbledon. And Rosol, ranked No. 100 in the world, seemed to have made his road easier by knocking out Ivan Dodig, a player who had beaten Nadal the previous year. 
Thus I had no clue what those mysterious texts were about. It wasn’t until I made it home and turned on the television that I understood. Lukas Rosol was serving for a two sets to one lead. More than that, he was doing it in brash style: staring Rafa down, fist-pumping toward his box, strutting cockily from serve to serve, going after his shots the first chance he got, and making them. It was a little startling. I hadn’t seen anyone, let alone a guy whose ranking was in the triple digits, face up to Nadal—or Federer or Djokovic—like that in a long time. I knew that Rafa had been in this position before at Wimbledon and survived, but there was something about Rosol’s demeanor, even as he went on to lose the fourth set, that told me he wasn’t going to go away easily.
Afterward, Rosol called his earth-shaking win—forget December 21, this was the day, for tennis fans, when the earth stood still—a “miracle for me,” which is where the above title comes from. Based on recent comments from Rafa, though, I might have called it “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Nadal says now that his loss to Rosol was inevitable because of the condition of his knees. Does that make this upset less stunning or exciting in hindsight? Not in my eyes. I believe Nadal when he says he was hurt, but that doesn’t take anything away from the magnitude of the match, or Rosol’s victory. 
We hear a lot, too much, about “asterisks” being put on surprising defeats these days. My policy is, even if a player later says that he was injured, if I didn't notice that he was impaired on court, I’m not going to make it a significant part of my assessment of the match. Watching the tape of Rosol-Nadal then, and watching the clip above now, I can’t see any moment when Rafa was obviously hindered by his creaky knees. (I’ve always felt the same way about his loss to Robin Soderling at the French Open in 2009. For comparison's sake, one defeat of his that I would asterisk would be his quarterfinal loss to David Ferrer at the Australian Open in 2011. Nadal hurt his leg early and was clearly hampered.)
Whatever the circumstances, Rosol’s 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win remains the Match of the Year for me. It ended a streak of 34 straight Grand Slam quarterfinal-or-better appearances by Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer, and showed that miracles can still happen in tennis. The quality was high as well: The two combined to hit 106 winners against 45 unforced errors. Even with Wimbledon’s generous judging standards, that’s impressive.
Nadal had never lost to anyone ranked below No. 70 at a Grand Slam. In his five previous visits to Wimbledon, Rosol had lost in the first round of qualifying each time. Roger Federer said that he “laughed at [Rosol's] performance for 10 minutes” after the match was over; most of us understood the sentiment. Looking back, though, what’s interesting is that this upset, while it was the biggest of the Open era and left the tennis world rightly gobsmacked, wasn’t a miracle at all. It was just a very good game plan, masterfully executed.
Rosol and Nadal, who were both 26 when this match was played (Rosol turned 27 a month later) had never faced each other. There was no reason to think that this one would be anything but routine. Rosol, despite his air of confidence, said afterward that when he walked on court, he told himself, “Just don’t lose 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.” In retrospect, though, there were some ominous signs. After winning the French Open, Nadal hadn’t made a smooth transition to grass. He had lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber in Halle and struggled against Bellucci in his Wimbledon opener.
It’s also clear from the start that Rosol wasn’t intimidated by the court or the opponent. In the first game, he drills big forehands, tries a theatrical undercut drop shot, and jogs to the sidelines after he holds.
I wrote after this match that Rosol had combined elements from the games of three previous Nadal-conquerors. He played quickly, like Dodig; he went after his ground strokes on the rise, like Juan Martin del Potro; and he didn’t back down, like Robin Soderling. In other words, rather than let Rafa set the terms of the match, the way he usually does, Rosol dictated how it would be played both during the points and between them.
At the time, I felt like Rosol, with his stares across the net and slight smirk to his box, was essentially telling Nadal, “I don’t believe you’re that good. You’re going to have to prove you can beat me.” That’s a remarkable front for a lower-ranked player to put up, especially one who, on the inside, was just hoping not to be triple-bageled. It’s also one that other players should put up more often against the Big 4. Rosol isn't deferential here, but he isn't disrespectful, either.
At the start of the third set, when things were beginning to turn against him, Nadal complained that Rosol was distracting him by moving too much while he waited to return serve. At the next changeover, Rafa ran into him. Rosol not only had Nadal on the run, he was under his skin.
From a statistical standpoint Nadal had a good day. He hit a higher-than-normal 19 aces, and made 41 winners against 16 unforced errors. But he was passive, and, as he had at the end of the match we looked at yesterday, the Aussie Open final, he tried too many slice backhands. They floated and hung in the middle of the court for Rosol to eat up. 
Rafa got on track in the fourth set, and if there hadn’t been a 30-minute break to close the roof at that point, it’s likely that he would have won the fifth as well. The key moment came in the first game of the fifth. Nadal went down 0-30, and faced a break point at 30-40. He took an easy mid-court forehand and inexplicably  sent it right into Rosol’s own forehand. The Czech hit a solid pass to break, and he was off to the races.
It’s Rosol’s fifth-set performance that will be the stuff of legend. No one had ever seen anything quite like it, on Centre Court or anywhere else. He swung for the fences and couldn’t miss; his long forehand take-back, normally a liability on grass, didn’t hurt him at all. He moved even faster between points and looked, at times, as if his temperature were visibly rising as we watched. He wound up his forehand with shadow swings while he waited to receive serve, as if he couldn’t wait to take a cut at the ball. Under the roof, where shots sound like gun cracks, Rosol entered the mythical Zone. Even blowing a 0-30 lead at 4-2 didn’t bother him. Instead of worrying about it, he won the final 13 points on his serve and closed the match with three aces and a forehand winner.
As Rafa said:
“He played more than unbelievable. 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. At the end, when the opponent wants to play like he wanted to play in the fifth set, you are in his hands, no? Everything was going right for him."
“Today I was somewhere else,” Rosol said. “It’s like a dream for the fifth set, I don’t feel anything. I was in a trance a little bit. I had my adrenaline so high.”
But Rosol’s performance wasn’t just a fifth-set freak show. To get there, he had been methodical and gritty over a long period of time. He never settled for rallies when he didn’t have to; he knew he needed to take his swings as soon as he could. Who would have thought that Rosol would lose a first-set tiebreaker to Nadal 11-9 and come back stronger in the second set? Who would have thought that he would break Nadal early in each of the next two sets, and hold out all the way from there? Who would have thought that he would react to the roof-closing break with more assurance—he used it to take what is now the game’s most famous shower.
As for Rafa, he was the loser, in painful fashion, of my Top 2 matches of 2012, but in a way that's another reason for tennis to welcome him back. He played half a season, and was still involved in three of its 10 most memorable matches, more than any other player. Rafa may not go down as the greatest player ever, but it's hard to think of anyone who has ever been as good at getting into epic contests. 
“It’s sport, nobody’s unbeaten,” Rosol said afterward. “We’re just people, we’re just humans. Everybody can win.”
“Anything can happen on a tennis court,” would seem to be the message of the Miracle on Grass. I’d say it’s a little different, and more hopeful. Lukas Rosol showed that with the right mindset and attitude—as well as a few more-than-unbelievable forehands—you can give yourself a chance to make anything happen.

Steve Tignor's Top 10 Matches of 2012:

No. 1: The Miracle on Grass: Lukas Rosol d. Rafael Nadal
No. 2: The Struggle Down Under: Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal
No. 3: Olympian Efforts: Roger Federer d. Juan Martin del Potro
No. 4: Wooing Them: Victoria Azarenka d. Sam Stosur
No. 5: Tightrope Walk Across Paris: Novak Djokovic d. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
No. 6: Winning Like It's 1999: Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka
No. 7: Fireworks: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer
No. 8: Sturm and Drang: Angelique Kerber d. Sabine Lisicki
No. 9: Sculpting a Strange Masterpiece: Bernard Tomic d. Alexandr Dolgopolov

No. 10: Stunner in Paris: Virginie Razzano d. Serena Williams


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