Few players handle defeat with the dignity or perspective Rafael Nadal brings to that morale-crushing experience.
If there were triumph to be extracted from losing in straight sets to Steve Darcis, a 29-year-old Belgian with a big serve, a love of the grasscourt game and more self-belief than might be expected of a player ranked 135 in the world, the Spaniard found it.
His refusal under persistent questioning on Monday night to blame the injury to his left knee that seemed to hamper him towards the end of their first-round match on Court No1 — and which put him out of the game for seven months after his loss to Lukas Rosol in the second round last year – was no surprise to those who have witnessed him handle setbacks in the past.
That Rosol went out in five sets on Monday lent Nadal's situation further piquancy. The man who beat the man was gone, too; so how good was the man?
Good enough to reach five finals here and win two of them, he reminded his inquisitors. Indeed, so profound is Nadal's humility, he can make those looking for darkness that is not there seem heartless opportunists. He lost a tennis match. His opponent played better than him. And, no, he would not talk about his knee. That would be disrespectful to the winner.
This is the code of the locker room. Some abide by it, some pretend to and others are shameless. Nevertheless, from a more objective vantage point, it was clear Nadal's left knee was giving up on him towards the end of a match in which Darcis cleverly moved him along the baseline, risking the reprisal of that killer cross-court forehand, and drew him towards the net, normally a place he is not only comfortable but lethal. Not on Monday.
Even before a slight limp struck him down in the fading moments, Nadal struggled to get his feet moving properly over the slippery surface. Darcis, who came to Wimbledon with four grasscourt matches behind him and was unencumbered by bad knees, moved with more certainty. His conviction grew with each rally won, each point accrued. He surfed a tide of confidence all the way to the finish to win 7-6, 7-6, 6-4. It took him five minutes short of three hours, long for a three-setter and proof of what a battle it was.
Darcis might never have a bigger day. As to how many Nadal has left, that was never a cause for speculation during his phenomenal return to the game over the past few months when he amassed 43 wins in 45 matches, winning seven of the nine finals he reached. One defeat — albeit a seismic shock to the experts, the tournament and, most likely, Mr Darcis — precipitated the usual murmurs.
And they are worth listening to, because his response to inquiries about his immediate and medium-term future left a big enough void to encourage speculation that he might take a little rest. As much as driven athletes such as Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer crave victory like a drug, they have to subconsciously be ready to accept what lesser players go through on a more regular basis. As Nadal said in Paris, before winning his eighth French Open title, not to have doubts is arrogant. And there was a sense of genuine surprise, bordering on disbelief, elsewhere. Nobody had predicted this.
"Obviously surprising," was Murray's verdict. "but that's sport. Darcis beat [Tomas] Berdych in the Olympics and likes the grass. He's a talented player. People haven't expected this the past few years, because Rafa and Roger [Federer] have been so consistent in the slams, but it happens. There are no easy matches. You need to be ready and switched on, right from the start."
Darcis, ecstatic but measured, said: "If you start to focus on him, it's tough. It's already tough. I tried to focus on myself, I think I did well today. I always played good on grass, maybe not here. I have two wins here against top 10 on grass, Berdych in the Olympics, and now Nadal."
Yet the numbing reality of the result was laid out later in the statistics: this was Nadal's first loss in the first round of a slam; Darcis is the lowest-ranked player to beat him at any event since Joachim Johansson, when he was rated 690 in the world at Stockholm seven years ago; the last reigning French champion to lose in the first round here was Gustavo Kuerten, in 1997; Nadal has come back twice from two sets down at Wimbledon – against Robert Kendrick in the second round in 2006, and Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round the following year. Yesterday, he could not do it.
Tennis, like all sport, can shock. Usually, it does no more than that. The following day, the numbness fades. The memory does too, more quickly for the loser, of course. It is all wonderful, innocent theatre, another slice of life, but, as Nadal reminds us: "At the end, is not a tragedy. Is sport."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Carine06