Commentary

Rafael Nadal's loss hard to fathom

Updated: June 28, 2012, 10:02 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- The tale of the tape was not even remotely encouraging for the journeyman from the Czech Republic.

Lukas Rosol and Rafael Nadal are both 26 years, but that is where the similarities end. Nadal has won 11 Grand Slam singles titles; coming into their second-round match Thursday, Rosol had won four Grand Slam matches. Rafa has 50 ATP-level tournament trophies at home; Rosol doesn't have any. Nadal has reached the final at the All England Club the past five times he's played here, winning twice. Rosol's first match win here came Tuesday. In five previous appearances here, Rosol lost in the first round of qualifying.

Statistics can be misleading -- numbers lie all the time in sports -- and, sure enough, this one did not go at all as expected. Rosol was a quick-strike revelation. Nadal, in fact, could have been sent packing in just four sets in one of the greatest Wimbledon upsets in recent memory.

As it turned out, it happened in the fifth.

In an arresting, dumbfounding match that featured a 45-minute delay after the fourth set to close the roof on Centre Court, Rosol played with astonishing power, winning 7-6 (9), 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.

"Nadal is only human," Rosol said afterward. "He can play good and some matches, and he can be in not so good shape. That was today.

"That's was my best match ever. Congratulations to Rafa, but I think I was better today."

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Clive Rose/Getty ImagesLukas Rosol is the lowest-ranked player ever to beat Rafael Nadal in a Slam.

Was Rosol too good?

"That's too simple," Nadal said. "In the fifth, yes. In the fifth set, he played more than unbelievable. That's fine. First three sets I didn't play well. I didn't have the right inspiration."

How to measure the magnitude of this upset?

It has been seven years since Rafa lost this early in a major championship. Rosol, who is ranked No. 100 among ATP World Tour players, is the lowest-ranked player to ever beat Nadal in a Grand Slam.

"It's majestic," BBC commentator John Lloyd said at one point in the final set. "He's in a dream state. The only question: Will he wake up."

Rosol was virtually unconscious in the crucible of the final set, impervious to the pressure of this historic occasion.

How unlikely?

Think Ivo Karlovic's shocker over defending champion Lleyton Hewitt here in 2003. Or maybe Marat Safin's straight-sets stunner over Pete Sampras in the final of the 2000 U.S. Open. Yes, there were some who ranked this as one of the biggest upsets in recent Grand Slam history.

Through it all, Rosol was swinging from the heels. In the final game, he hit a forehand winner and three outrageous aces. He finished with 22 aces and 65 winners, and there were times when Nadal looked helpless.

Rosol's groundstrokes -- from both sides -- consistently registered in excess of 90 mph. One outrageous backhand in the fifth set was clocked at 99 mph -- the speed of a top-notch major league fastball.

And so, Nadal will not win back-to-back majors. And he will not get the chance to stare down Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer in the final. He will head home to the Spanish island of Mallorca and try to gather himself for a return to the All England Club in less than a month for the Olympics.

Nadal, it should be noted, was in a foul mood throughout the match. He complained several times that Rosol was disrupting his service games by jumping around.

"He was not satisfied," Rosol said, "but I was concentrated on myself. I'm not sure what he was complaining about."

Nadal declined to say what he was complaining about because it would sound like an excuse.

There was also a tense moment when Nadal -- who usually waits for his opponent to cross his path en route to the changeover chair -- appeared to purposely bump into Rosol at the end of the fourth set.

Nadal showed this same alarming lack of emotional control at the French Open and, going forward, that's concerning if you are a Rafa fan. It makes you wonder if there's something else going on below the surface.

So, how on earth did Nadal find himself in such a nasty hole, trailing Rosol two sets to one?

In a word, the serve.

Rosol, a fearless 6-foot-5 player, hit it hard -- and then harder. He hit one 134 mph (in the very last game) and averaged a smoking 124. Even his average second serve came in at 101. On the juicy emerald carpet here at the All England Club, that means a lot of squirting, skidding offerings that are, frankly, a bear to track down and return.

Rafa struggled with Rosol's serve for the first three sets, before dialing in, just in time, in the fourth. When a Rosol backhand drifted long, Nadal screamed, clenched his fist and issued a muted uppercut. But just when momentum had switched allegiance, the Wimbledon authorities took the air out of the ball with twilight descending.

Nadal was sitting shirtless in his changeover chair when he was informed the match would be stopped for approximately 40 minutes while the roof was closed and the air conditioning pumped in to keep the grass from getting slippery. The All England Club paid about $80 million for the retractable roof, which was installed in 2009, and loves to show it off -- even when it's not raining. This was the 19th match under the roof and the second in two years for Rafa, who did not take the news well.

Later, Nadal conceded that, "For sure, it wasn't the best [decision] for me. Accept that he came back and played unbelievable [in] the fifth."

In retrospect, Nadal might well have lost in three sets if he hadn't saved three set points in the first-set tiebreaker. A forehand winner gave him the 62-minute frame and, as it turned out, a chance to stay alive after dropping the next two sets.

With the two players jumping and bouncing around like boxers, the fifth set began. Rosol broke Nadal in the very first game, just as he did in the second set, and again he made it stand up.

"I'm very, very disappointed," Nadal said. "It's a second-round match. You feel you had a chance to win the title. That's painful always to lose.

"The last four months were great for me. Here, I play against an inspired opponent -- and I'm out. That's all. It's not a tragedy; it's just a tennis match."

The defeat of Nadal opens up the draw for Andy Murray, the man Great Britain aches to see win his first Grand Slam singles title. Now his toughest potential opponents on the bottom half of the draw are Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic.

In his just-after-the-fact interview with the BBC, the words poured out of Rosol's mouth.

"I don't know what to say," he said. "It's just a miracle for me. I just didn't want to play like last year [when he lost his first qualifying match]. So many emotions."

"I know, I know, he's a superstar. I'm very sorry for him. I played unbelievable today. If you ask me in a couple more minutes, maybe I can try to give you a better answer."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.