ON THURSDAY, June 28, 2012, when the twilight faded over Wimbledon’s center court Rafael Nadal’s dreams were shattered by an obscure twenty six year old six-foot-five Czech with receding unruly brown hair. Upon precluding the match with a 129 mph ace, his 22nd in the five-setter, Lukas Rasol dropped to his knees and his head graced the very same velvety grass over which Nadal too had kneeled as the champion two years ago.
All through the three hours eighteen minutes duration of play Rasol moved like a practiced salsa dancer over the baseline. While he waited for his antagonist to strike the ball at the other end his eyes held within them a deceptive hunger. His relentless and ruthless ground strokes were reminiscent of those of the big hitting Robin Soderling in the 2009 French Open where Nadal had lost in the fourth round, his only loss till date at Roland Garros.
Slava Dosedel a former touring Czech pro and now Rasol’s coach appeared to have done his homework watching videos of Nadal’s most recent triumphs. Over the years the behavior pattern of the grass at Wimbledon has undergone a metamorphosis. The conditions have tend to become slower with a higher bounce in favour of the baseliner which was not the case a couple of decades ago when players like John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker ruled the roost. Dosedel advised Rasol to strike the ball hard and flat generating a higher velocity that would deprive Nadal a split second or two during the execution of his lethal topspin forehand, the single most feared weapon on the tour and not to be lured into the cobweb of baseline rallies that would allow Nadal the leverage over his opponents. (May be Marián Vajda and Paul Annacone would consider the underlying arithmetic logic behind the facile dynamics in the days ahead.)
The upstart Rasol stuck to Dosedel’s game plan and this time it appeared that Nadal had met his match. The eleven time grand slam title holder was made to look like one of his numerous foes during his 583-121 career record at the other end of the net, on the back foot and agitated to the extent that he bumped into his adversary on a change over during the third set. Rasol later said that it was a tactic intended to unsettle his ongoing momentum. The high drama of the match had only one parallel in the modern history of the game when a 19 year old Mary Pierce, the stylish blonde with a peacock strut in her strides from within the ‘T’ to the baseline thrashed Golden Girl (all four Grand Slams plus Olympic Gold) Steffi Graaf 6-2, 6-2 at Roland Garros in 1994. Graaf after the match had conceded, “it is healthy for the game and exciting for the spectators.” Nadal, however, was less gracious in defeat: “It is not a tragedy. It is only a tennis match”, an unbecoming affirmation from a player whose life at this point doesn’t mean much without tennis.
Hardly three weeks ago in the final at Roland Garros when Djokovic had grabbed eight games out of nine in a row that included a breathtaking 44-stroke rally, a rain break had dropped out of heavens for Nadal’s rescue. It took much less than an hour for him the next day to close out the match and hold the trophy high over his head for a seventh time, surpassing Bjon Borg’s record. Thursday evening at the end of the fourth set that Nadal had won, bad light disrupted play. When the match resumed after forty minutes Rasol played “unbelievable” and sent Nadal packing early to Mallorca.
Poetic justice, perhaps.