Commentary

The unknown future of Rafael Nadal

Updated: June 24, 2013, 8:40 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Since his comeback in February, Rafael Nadal has said one thing: The knee is not the story. He didn't want to talk about the left knee injury that kept him out for seven months after being stunned here by Lukas Rosol in the second round in 2012. He said he would focus on his play, which spoke enough for him to believe that the knee issue just might be dead. Nine tournaments, nine finals, seven titles, including a hard-court Masters 1000 at Indian Wells and his eighth French Open, the 12th major title of his career.

When he walked off Court No. 1 on Monday, beaten in straight sets 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-4 by world No. 135 Steve Darcis of Belgium, the treacherous knee spun and gathered and gained force, a tornado that threatens to wreck a spectacular comeback. Nadal was visibly limping throughout the final two sets. Not only was it legitimate to think about his future, but it also made you wonder if Darcis had continued unlocking the emerging formula of beating him.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Susan Mullane/USA TODAY SportsRafael Nadal wouldn't talk about his knee, but it was evident there was something going on against Steve Darcis.
The competition and its spirit remained first with Nadal, and thus the analysis and the future will have to wait.

"Only thing that I can say today is congratulate Steve Darcis. He played a fantastic match," Nadal said. "Everything that I will say today about knee is an excuse, and I don't like to put any excuse when I'm losing a match like I did today. He deserves not one excuse."

Dozens of questions will follow Nadal for the rest of the summer. He was injured last year and he said he would play the US Open and Davis Cup but ended up missing both plus the Australian Open this past January. But his comments during his news conference made one thing clear: Once his second-best surface, he is clearly at a crossroads on the grass at Wimbledon. He is 1-3 in his past four matches on grass, losing to then world No. 34 Philipp Kohlschreiber (Halle, 2012), No. 100 Rosol (Wimbledon, 2012) and now Darcis. The reasons are twofold, but both come back to his knee.

The first is the short turnaround between the end of the French Open and the beginning of Wimbledon. For the past two years, Nadal has emptied his energy tank to win at Roland Garros.

This year, Darcis was terrific. He served better than Nadal, and even more impressively, played better defense. Nadal is one of the greatest players of all time, but at no point during the match was Darcis hurt by Nadal, affected or intimidated by his abilities or aura. Nadal had opportunities -- he served for the second set at 6-5 and had a set point at 8-7 -- but Darcis answered each challenge.

But the point remained that again Nadal expended tremendous energy to win the French, did not play a grass tuneup tournament (he usually plays Halle in Germany) and was beaten fairly soundly by a player certainly not in his class.

From 2006 to 2010 (he did not play in 2009), Nadal either won or finished runner-up at Wimbledon. But in the past two years, he has lost in the second and first round.

In two years, there will be a three-week gap between the tournaments instead of two, but if Nadal wins the French Open next year or goes deep into the tournament, it is not inconceivable that Nadal would consider not playing Wimbledon.

"I had my chances. I didn't make it," Nadal said. "So in grass it is difficult to adapt yourself, to adapt your game. When you don't have the chance to play before, and I didn't have the chance to play this year, it's tougher. I didn't find my rhythm."

It showed on the court. Nadal was gracious and steadfast to give Darcis his credit, which he deserved, but it was obvious that Nadal was not moving well on the grass. Nadal did not move hard to his left and did not push off his left leg to go to his right.

Early in the second set, Darcis began ripping inside-out forehands to Nadal's left, an approach that mimicked how Novak Djokovic played him in their epic semifinal at Roland Garros. Both Darcis and Djokovic applied a ruthlessly effective tactic very successfully.

In the old days, when he was unhampered, hitting to Nadal's forehand represented death -- for he was quick enough to punish the tactic by hitting a screaming down-the-line winner. Against Djokovic in Paris and against Darcis, Nadal has proved he can no longer always be expected to retrieve the shot. On grass, his impairments are even more pronounced.

"I said on Saturday [grass] probably the toughest surface for me because I had to move and play in a lower position than in the rest of the surfaces," Nadal said. "That's the real thing. I was not lying to anybody."

He later added, "The only thing I can do is keep working hard and giving me chances to win on this surface. I think and I hope I have a few more years to play here and to play at the right level. I was not able to play great this year or last."

For a player who cannot bend on grass and cannot win on grass, Nadal's physical decline has sparked a spectacular fall resulting in two massive upsets here in consecutive years.