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For the second time in less than a year, Rafael Nadal has been upstaged by Lukas Rosol, a 6-foot-5, 27-year-old ball punisher from the Czech Republic. The first time, in case you spent last year living under a rock, was in the second round at Wimbledon, where Rosol eliminated Nadal and helped drive him into a seven-month sabbatical.
Nadal won the Barcelona tournament Sunday, logging his eight win in nine attempts in that city and rebounding from his failure -- by a whisker -- to win his ninth consecutive title in Monte Carlo.
Nadal wins another title on clay. Ho-hum.
Even dedicated Nadalistas must grow a little tired of this, no? Nadal on clay makes the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls, the Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers and the Derek Jeter New York Yankees look semi-successful.
Rosol, by contrast, is more than a year older than Nadal and ranked No. 35. Until Sunday, he had yet to play a singles final at any tour event. But he spanked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-3, 6-2 to win in Bucharest, and you know you've accomplished something when you beat a Spanish dude with two last names on a red clay court. You want more backstory? Rosol's father died just 10 days ago. After his breakthrough win, an emotional Rosol reflected:
"I wanted to dedicate this trophy to someone, so I found the energy; I felt somebody was helping me from up top. It's not just about me. My family has always supported me and my tennis. … I will remember this week. It was very emotional for me and is something special. I found a way to beat some good players and succeed."
Let's be frank: This story was a heckuva lot more compelling than the tale of yet another Nadal blowout followed by Nadal issuing all kinds of disclaimers about his superiority. But we know better. Nadal is the matador, and the guy he beat in Barcelona (Nicolas Almagro) is just another deferential torero on the Spanish depth chart. Almagro got two more games off Nadal than Garcia-Lopez (another of those toreros) did off Rosol, so that's something -- I guess.
Nadal has 38 straight wins in Barcelona, and he's won 80 of the past 82 sets he's played there. The clay season has barely started, and Nadal has already salted away three titles on the red stuff. This guy has won 23 clay-court titles at Roland Garros and Masters 1000 events alone.
These events underscore just how fortunate we are to have the present ATP setup, with multiple second- and third-tier tournaments going on during all but the most critical weeks -- the weeks of the Masters 1000 events and Grand Slam events. OK, Barcelona was an ATP 500 while Bucharest was one of the lowest-rung 250s. The important thing is that with the players well spread out, and none of the other big-four stars slinging forehands, we got a break from the predictable Rafa-centric storylines that are interrupted only on rarest of occasions.
Novak Djokovic may throw a monkey wrench into Nadal's gears again this year, as he did in 2011 (and as he did in Monte Carlo, just over a week ago). But short of that, the chances are slim that anyone will beat Rafa in a duel on the dust.
Grass may be a different story, and if you're hoping for a projected second-round rematch between Nadal and Rosol (shades of John Isner against Nicolas Mahut, the rematch!), you can just forget about it. Rosol is playing his way into a seeding at Wimbledon.
So much for backstory.