Wise After the Fact

Wimbledon, Day One

Darcis d. (5) Nadal, 7/6 7/6 6/4

To suggest that draw analysis is an inexact science is misleading, insofar as it suggests that the act of predicting how a tennis tournament will play out based on the configuration of its participants is a science at all. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images EuropeAt its best, it is a harmless diversion, one that might propel a writer into adjacent regions, amusingly or fruitfully as their taste or skill allows. More often it stands revealed as folly. Yesterday it looked like folly. If anyone predicted that Steve Darcis would defeat Rafael Nadal in the first round of Wimbledon, and that he would do it in straight sets, they were either Darcis’ coach putting on a comically brave face or they kept it to themselves, lest they invite ridicule. Not even Darcis himself expressed real faith in victory; he has learned by rote the value of realism over a long decade on the lower tours, and his initial reaction upon conducting his own preliminary draw analysis was simply to exclaim ‘Shit!

After all, last year’s second round loss to the hundredth ranked Lukas Rosol still numbers among the greatest upsets of the Open Era. The idea that it could be reprised a year later was laughable. The idea that it could be surpassed was frankly absurd. It remained absurd until the very end. There was no moment, until Darcis’ final ace hummed past Nadal, in which it did not seem that even the merest slackening of momentum would prove momentous: Nadal, constrained as he was, his brow terraced by its usual cares, could surely turn it around given the slightest dip from Darcis. Yet somehow, despite a persuasive case to do so, and given the fine examples of so many before him, Darcis never wavered. He continued to play magnificent grass court tennis until the end, operating with a kind of willed obtuseness, in which he never quite grasped that diminutive journeymen with single-handed backhands aren’t supposed to sustain this kind of attack, against an all-time great on a grand court. There are supposed to be rules.

I won’t pretend that I’ve seen Darcis play all that much – perhaps a dozen times – though on today’s evidence I clearly haven’t seen him play enough. I last saw him live as he was outclassed by Philipp Kohlschreiber at Melbourne Park. More pertinently, I watched him slice Tomas Berdych’s game to ribbons in the first round of last year’s Olympic Games, but while I found Darcis’ efforts admirable that day, he was merely one of many men inflicting early-round losses on Berdych at the time, and I thought little of it. A year on, however, and the pattern now seems clear: if Darcis is going to threaten a top player, it will likely to be on grass, and specifically on grass that has yet to see much traffic. Being a type of exotic predatory mammal – small, spry as a whippet and unusually aggressive – we can say that early-round grass is his preferred habitat. Yesterday he was in his element.

However, the lure of the easy explanation is strong, but it isn’t one to which one should necessarily succumb. It’s too tempting to believe that advantageous conditions amount to much. Yesterday surely wasn’t the only match this season in which conditions suited Daric, yet through six months of toil, this was only his third victory at tour level.

The other thing worth noting is how astonishingly easy it is to look prescient in retrospect. One can analyse how and why Darcis won, but due admission must be made that this is nothing but wisdom after the fact, if indeed wisdom it is. While I broadly subscribe to the idea that anything can happen in sport, as recently as two days ago I pointed out that it rarely does. Today it did. Some have helpfully reminded us that this is why we watch sport at all, as though we need reminding.

Others have proved that this certainly isn’t why they watch sport. Witnessing your favourite player lose in straight sets to the 135th best player in the world probably featured nowhere on the bucket lists of many Nadal fans. Understandably, this was an experience they could have done without. (Some of these have summarily announced that Wimbledon for them is over. This is understandable, but not excusable.) I imagine Darcis’ fan-base is somewhat smaller, but for those few it was an experience hardly dreamt-of.

Though I probably risk loud outrage for even suggesting it, I suspect the lesson here is that Nadal is not a great grass court player. What he is, is a great tennis player. In an era that through lack of a proper grass season wants for true grass specialists, this has generally been enough to see him through the first week of Wimbledon. By the second week, the All England Club’s main courts are functionally similar to a hardcourt – harder, slower and consistent in their pace and bounce. But in the first week, when the turf remains lush, green and slick, Nadal can be vulnerable to attacking players. Traditionally, these challenges have come from powerful men such as Robin Haase or Lukas Rosol, or those whose assault is abetted by the surface, such as Philipp Petzschner. Nonetheless, for all but Rosol last year Nadal’s skills, reflexes and athleticism have enabled him to get through. Even given Nadal’s habit of starting gingerly at Majors, Darcis hardly constituted a legitimate threat.

Into that general mix we can add inadequate preparation time. Nadal’s grass-court acclimation, as far as I can make out, entailed a lone practice set against Kei Nishikori. He pulled out of Halle, apparently on the orders of his doctors. There has, naturally, been ample talk of injury. The extent of player injuries and the degree to which they have contributed to a given outcome has become a fraught area of discussion in recent year, although that isn’t to say it is therefore an interesting one. It’s like the most boring minefield in the world, and rendered more so by the knowledge that however carefully you step, you’re going to put a foot wrong. For what it’s worth, I thought Nadal was a trifle ginger at times later in the match, especially moving out of his backhand corner. Nevertheless, he was as fleet as ever moving into that corner (and was consequently caught out by particularly good slices on a few crucial occasions). I’ve seen him win plenty of matches in worse condition, especially against guys ranked outside the top hundred. Put it this way: he was nowhere near as hobbled as he was the last time he lost in straight sets at a Major, in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Australian Open. That night he could barely move, and when he could, he couldn’t stop.

But it doesn’t require an extravagant injury when you are operating on your worst surface – first round grass – with inadequate preparation, and facing an inspired opponent playing wonderful tennis. When we put all these things together, it’s not that hard to see how Nadal lost. The funny thing is that no one managed to piece them all together beforehand. Sadly, you get no marks for retrospective prophecy. It does suggest that any draw analysis, if it must be conducted at all, should wait until the tournament is over. Just about every who tried it soon after the draw was released got it wrong, especially those who immediately bewailed the likelihood of a quarterfinal between Federer and Nadal.

It hardly seemed reasonable that Nadal would fall before the quarters, and indeed some had already installed him for the title. It followed that any loss would come in defiance of reason, and so it proved. Darcis’ victory was unreasonable in the way it defied the usual gravity of professional tennis, which dictates that an ostensibly lesser player will remain buoyant only until he or she realises what is happening. It is not unlike Douglas Adams’ advice on how to fly: you throw yourself at the ground and miss, and then only remain aloft until you realise that what you’re doing is impossible.

Or, to adapt Andy Roddick’s line about facing inspired journeymen: ‘Sooner or later you’re going to find out why a guy is Steve Darcis.’ I thought we’d find out in that second set tiebreaker, when four set points went begging, only to be fatally bashed in a back-alley. (On the other hand, Darcis boasts a tiebreak record superior to the vast majority of the men’s tour. Only Federer, Djokovic and Isner are consistently better once the score attains six-all, although to be fair those guys have to be good against each other, whereas Darcis has compiled his record against comparative minnows. Minnows, and now Nadal.) I was sure we’d discover the why of Darcis when he secured that early break in the third, given the vanishingly slim chance that he’d be able to hold serve , and his nerve, until the end.

But we never did find out. Perhaps we’ll find out later. Perhaps we won’t. Perhaps Steve Darcis will never lose again. It is, after all, sport, and anything can happen. At least now we can say we saw anything happen. We can, because it was unforgettable.


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