Can Rafa win Roland Garros

Rafael Nadal’s Air of Invincibility No Longer Invincible

By Yeshatyahu Ginsburg

Daniel Brands did not have the look of a man come to do the impossible or of someone who wanted to pull off one of the greatest upsets of all time. He did not chase down every single ball, did not get fired up often, and even gave up on a few points. And still, Brands had us thinking for a while that he could do the unthinkable.

The early part of the match went the way that most of Rafa’s matches against big servers seem to. There were lots of easy holds punctuated by a few fairly exciting moments. Everything seemed normal and no one really paid too much attention to the match. Those watching were only those interested in seeing Rafa run over an early-round opponent. No one expected the match to have any actual intrigue. It certainly wasn’t a matchup that enticed most Americans to wake up early and watch.

Then came 4-4 in the first. Rafa played a poor service game, including two double-faults, and Brands broke and held on to take the first set. All of a sudden, the world paid attention. Rafa had never lost the first set of a first-round Grand Slam match in his career. The only other players to ever take a first set from him at Roland Garros are named Soderling, Federer, and Mariano Puerta (in Rafa’s first Roland Garros final).

But this was more than just a bit of trivia. This wasn’t a blip on the radar screen. The world saw the potential for history to repeat itself. Fans on twitter, message boards, and even television commentators were suddenly drawing comparisons to Lukas Rosol and Robin Soderling. Even on court, you could see that Brands wasn’t shocked by his position of being a set up and Rafa wasn’t new to being down.

It definitely helped that Brands kept the match exciting by hitting ridiculous shots from both wings from start to finish. After all, it’s not easy to win points against Rafa without playing out of your mind tennis. And Brands was winning points. Even though he lost the last three sets, he never trailed by a double break in any set and was only broken twice in the match.

Brands played a very similar match to what Rosol did last Wimbledon. He served big every single time and just went for massive shots at every opportunity. Just about every forehand or backhand that even a bit of height on it was laced into a corner. Brands brought the game plan to beat Nadal and stuck to it. And maybe if this match had been on grass instead of clay, his result could have been a little different. It certainly was for Rosol last year.

That, really, is what we have to take out of this match. When Rosol won a set against Rafa, it was still business as usual. No one thought the unthinkable. It was just a player playing a great set. It would pass. There was no way Rosol would win. When he won the third set, everyone still thought Rafa had it in the bag. Rafa was invincible when not facing players of Djokovic caliber. When Rosol broke to start the fifth set, the world felt disbelief. And, eventually, as Rosol banged down big serve after big serve and forehand after forehand, the world backed Lukas. Fans embraced the upset possibility, finally, after hard-fought hours of nerves of steel.

Today, though, was different. This was on clay. This is a Rafa who has reached the final of every tournament since his comeback. And yet, it took one set from a big server for people to believe that Rafa could lose again. And the fact that Rafa took the next three sets without being broken once didn’t change that. That, perhaps, may be the biggest legacy of Lukas Rosol so far. Rafael Nadal losing is no longer unthinkable.