Originally Published: July 3, 2015 6:02 a.m.
LONDON - On the final point of the first set of his latest Wimbledon disappointment, Rafael Nadal swung his mighty, lefty forehand - and whiffed, accidentally whacking his right leg with his racket.
It was a painful, embarrassing mistake, symbolic of the sort of day this was.
During five trips to the All England Club from 2006-11, Nadal reached the final every time. In his most recent four appearances, though, Nadal has exited early against an unheralded, unaccomplished and, most importantly, unafraid opponent ranked 100th or worse. On Thursday, Nadal lost 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the second round to Dustin Brown, who needed to qualify just to enter the main draw.
"It's not the end," Nadal said. "(It's) a sad moment for me ... but life continues. My career, too."
Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, summed up the Centre Court match this way: "He played really bad. Bad shots. Very bad with his forehand."
All true. But give credit to Brown and his varied, risky and entertaining brand of tennis, a mix of old-school serve-and-volleying, drop shots, drop volleys and go-for-it returns.
"I had nothing to lose. If I lose 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, everyone says 'Bravo, Rafa,'" Brown said.
The 30-year-old Brown was born in Germany to a Jamaican father - whose face is tattooed on Brown's stomach - and German mother. They moved to Jamaica when he was 12 and returned to Europe about a decade ago. Around that time, his parents bought him an RV so he could drive from tournament to tournament.
Who could have imagined this sort of triumph back then? Or, frankly, even now?
After all, Brown is ranked 102nd, entered Thursday with a 6-11 record in 2015 and has never been past the third round at a major.
Nadal, meanwhile, is a former No. 1 and the owner of 14 major titles, tied with Pete Sampras for second-most behind Roger Federer's 17.
Federer joined Andy Murray and Petra Kvitova as past Wimbledon champions picking up straightforward, straight-set victories Thursday. Federer's 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 win over Sam Querrey of the U.S. included one particularly memorable moment - an on-the-run, between-the-legs lob.
"You want to go over and give him a high-five sometimes," Querrey said, "but you can't do that."
Nadal used to leave opponents feeling that way, too. Not lately. He missed time last season with a right wrist injury, then needed appendix surgery, and has spoken about confidence issues.
After his run of five consecutive French Open titles ended last month with a quarterfinal loss to Novak Djokovic, Nadal's ranking dropped to 10th, his worst in 10 years.
Now he has failed to win any of his past four major tournaments, not even reaching the semifinals. It's the 29-year-old Spaniard's longest drought since the first five Slams of his career.
Consider, too, Nadal's history at Wimbledon. He lost to Federer in the 2006 and 2007 finals, then beat him 9-7 in the fifth set of the epic 2008 final. After missing the 2009 tournament because of injury, Nadal collected another trophy in 2010, then lost to Djokovic in the 2011 final.
"I don't know if I will be back to (that) level," Nadal acknowledged.
In 2012, he lost to No. 100 Lukas Rosol in the second round. In 2013, he lost to No. 135 Steve Darcis in the first. And last year, he lost to No. 144 Nick Kyrgios in the fourth.
Like those guys, Brown played wonderfully. His back-length dreadlocks jumping around as he raced to the net, Brown serve-and-volleyed on 99-of-114 service points, winning 71 of those. He hit serves at up to 133 mph (215 kph).
"Whatever I do is to take him out of his comfort zone," Brown said.
Most importantly, he never let up.
"I'm very happy that I held it together for the whole match," said Brown, who also beat Nadal on grass in Germany last year.
This match turned for good at 2-all in the third set, when Nadal's pair of double-faults handed over a break point that Brown converted with a drop-volley winner. Brown looked up at his guest box, where folks were jumping and yelling and fist-pumping wildly.
At least Nadal, who never earned a break chance over the last two sets, was able to joke afterward.
When a reporter asked whether he would stick around at his rented place before heading home, Nadal replied: "I don't have more work here in London, so if you want to use the house, (it's) going to be free tomorrow."