So perhaps the Centre Court crowd thought they could sit back and relax for the last match of the day.
Perhaps Nadal’s slow start in his opening match, going down 4-0 to Thomaz Bellucci before coming back to win in straight sets, was just the Spaniard warming up, getting used to the grass that he had spent so little time on. He had, after all, lost at Halle in the quarter-finals and then taken time off to rest after a long and arduous clay-court season.
Perhaps he had been undercooked but now, with his 50th grass-court match-win under his belt, he would sail.
But then perhaps his second opponent, Lukas Rosol, was just a really impressive grass court player.
Whatever the combination of reasons, Nadal once again took a while to warm to his task as the sun edged its way over the roof.
He all but lost the first set, faced two set points in the tie-break and finally took it, 11-9. So now, the usual story began to write itself: Nadal would run away with the match as he had against Bellucci. Not so: the cursor stopped on the computer screen when Rosol broke at the start of the second set and held his advantage right to its end, 6-4.
And he was not done there. The third set opened much the same, with the Czech breaking immediately and, with his own huge serving cranked up to over 130 mph, giving Nadal very little room for manoeuvre. In the fourth game, Rosol served to love and in the sixth he did the same. He held in the eighth, too, and stepped up to serve at 5-4.
Now the atmosphere was electric. Surely the less experienced, lower-seeded man would tense up under the pressure of the roaring support from an ecstatic crowd. Not a bit of it. He served big, he volleyed deep and he smashed winners to finally see a desperate lob from Nadal go long.
The Spaniard now looked angry rather than determined. How often has a former champion, and one so popular, been exposed to such passionate support for his relatively unknown opponent? His response was to open the fourth set much more strongly and his opponent, perhaps feeling the pressure at last, began to miss a few first serves.
A couple of huge-hitting, intense rallies brought up chances for Nadal and he made the break. The place erupted, as did Rafa’s fist. He was now 4-2 and striking his formidable forehand with ever more depth and venom.
Then Rosol, distracted by a bad bounce, lost concentration while Nadal kept pounding those balls back. Yet now, the Spaniard worked his set point with an altogether different tactic, repeatedly chipping his defensive returns to draw the errors. He made a second break with a searing forehand winner down the line, 6-2.
Anyone who has seen Nadal in such a position before, with the wind in his sails and the momentum in his favour, knew what to expect in the final set. However, that did not take account of a new scene in the drama.
The match was suspended so that the roof could be shut, not for rain—the sky was clear—but for light. Players and fans alike rushed for comfort breaks as the 15-minute transformation began and the floodlights turned the grass to an unnaturally lime-green hue.
Gone was the breeze that had wafted through the court just moments before, the air became warm and moist, and the sounds echoed and reverberated like a swimming pool. Would any of this affect the tempo of the match, the style of the tennis, the outcome?
Play was promised at 9.15 and by 9.20 the troops were becoming restless. They clapped, they Mexican waved and finally they whistled. Those with trains to catch had to be away before 10: Nadal would have to do his stuff in double-quick time.
But the packed arena was in for another shock. Rosol earned a break point in the first game and took his chance with alacrity with a forehand cross-court winner. The Czech was back in fighting form, powering down his serves and following them up with killer forehands. Every shot earned uproarious applause: He had won the fans respect and their support.
Nadal did his best to respond in kind, firing aces of his own and holding to love in the third game. Rosol, though, was like a man reborn, rediscovering the outrageous winners he produced to win the second and third sets. He was 3-1 up, then 4-2 up. Three aces and a serve-and-forehand-winner took it to 5-3. He closed out the set and the match in spectacular style to love—replete with more jaw-dropping winners.
Rosol fell to the ground and the Centre Court exploded. Enhanced by the roof, perhaps, the noise could have marked a Championship point: deafening, thrilling and even-handed to both winner and loser.
The Czech man was still bewildered when he tried to talk to the media: “I don’t know. So many emotions. I’m sorry for Rafa, but today I was somewhere else and I’m really happy for this. Still I cannot find the words. I still can’t believe it. It’s like dream for me.”
For Nadal, the pain was evident: It was his earliest Grand Slam defeat in seven years. Yet, as always, he maintained an enviable perspective: “I played against an inspired opponent and I am out. That’s all. Is not a tragedy. It’s only a tennis match. At the end, that’s life. There are much more important things. Sure, I wanted to win, but I lost. That’s it.”
He talked of going away for some well-earned rest but, even in his absence, Nadal will still fill the headlines for days to come.
He will be back to fight another day, but he will not, as anticipated, play Andy Murray in Wimbledon’s semi-finals. For the bubbling British fans, that may be one more reason to celebrate.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge