RAFAEL Nadal went out of a grand slam in the opening round for the first time in his career today as his Wimbledon agony continued against Steve Darcis.
The 12-time major champion, fresh from winning a record eighth French Open just two weeks ago, returned to the All England Club hoping to make amends for last year's second-round exit to Lukas Rosol, but was unable to make amends as he was beaten 7-6 (7/4) 7-6 (10/8) 6-4.
That shock loss to Rosol was validated by the seven months he subsequently missed through a recurrence of his long-standing knee injury.
And although Darcis - a Belgian ranked at 135th in the world - played the match of his life, Nadal did seem to be troubled again today.
Nadal, 27, looked unable to move off his left leg, with his knee taped up, and struggled to plant his weight down to hit his forehand.
Being bandaged in action is not uncommon for him, though, and since returning to the tour after seven months out he has made the final of all nine tournaments he has entered - winning seven - making this breakdown all the more surprising.
However it was his first competitive appearance on grass since the Rosol loss and with movement restricted against an opponent who rarely missed with a raft of flat and deep ground strokes, defeat was perhaps almost inevitable.
Injured or not, Nadal's name is a scalp for Darcis, who has never made it past the third round of a slam and has not won a tournament since March 2008.
But this was his day and he made sure he cashed in, becoming the lowest-ranked player Nadal has lost to since he was beaten by Joachim Johansson in 2006.
With some bookmakers pricing him at 100/1 for the match, Darcis may not have been the only one to have a good day, and from the word go he looked the better player, winning but failing to take four opening-set break points.
There would be no way out for Nadal in the 11th game, though, with a wild forehand costing him his serve for the first time. Although he broke back immediately, he was comprehensively outplayed in the tie-break.
The pattern continued deep into the second set. Nadal had one chance of a break put passed it up in the third, with Darcis continually finding incredible depth with the flattest of shots, leaving the Spaniard looking for a way out of trouble.
He managed to conjure one in the 11th game - just as Darcis had in the opener - and this time played it perfectly. But just like in the first, a break-back was immediate as Nadal allowed Darcis to secure a second tie-break. That went the same way too, with Nadal saving four set points and then passing up one of his own before pounding a forehand way over the baseline.
It was at this point that Nadal's lack of movement was starting to become glaringly obvious and he conceded his serve at the start of the third set with barely a whimper, and with a game advantage, Darcis moved forward with even more confidence.
He did offer Nadal a route back in with a break point in the eighth game but it was squandered, and as the match came to a close Darcis displayed nerves of steel, seeing out the triumph with an ace.
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