Unheralded Belgian sends Rafa home early

The departure of Rafael Nadal caused the major stir on the opening day of play at this year’s Wimbledon.

While last year’s men’s finalists Roger Federer and Andy Murray cruised through their first round encounters in straight sets, eight-time French Open winner and two-time SW19 champion Nadal was preparing to board a plane back to Majorca.

The 27-year-old fifth seed was a loser in three sets, 7-6 (7/4) 7-6 (10/8) 6-4, against the unheralded Steve Darcis from Belgium, who defied his ranking of 135th in the world to produce the performance of his life.

That Nadal appeared to be suffering from the knee injury which cost him seven months of his career was a moot point, with the Spaniard refusing to talk about it.

“For me, there were not a lot of things good, but I congratulate Darcis who played well. This is not the right day [to talk about injury]. I tried my best in every moment, but this was not right for me,” Nadal said.

“I tried my best and congratulate the opponent. It is not a tragedy, it is sport.”

For Darcis, known as ‘the shark’ because of his love of the fish — he has one tattooed on his shoulder — recognition has been a long time coming.

He hailed victory as his finest hour.

“It’s one of the greatest wins. It was a great match from the start to the finish,” said the player whose career earnings stand at a little over €1.75 million compared to Nadal’s €65m.

“I think I served very good. I used a lot of slice and I don’t think he liked it very much.”

Next up for Darcis will be a meeting with Lukasz Kobot as he looks to better his best slam return of a third round appearance at the 2011 French Open.

Before then, though, he has something else to do.

“I will try to catch a DVD of the game so I can keep it at home,” he said. “I have one child now and maybe I have more so I can tell the grandchildren. I think a lot of people will talk about this game for a few years. Me too.”

For Federer, the only thing bothering him was the weather.

Beginning his quest for a record eighth title on the grass, the 31-year-old needed just one hour and eight minutes to topple Victor Hanesku 6-3 6-2 6-0.

Federer looked classy without having to push himself too hard on Centre Court. Much tougher clashes are to come. “The longer the match, the longer you spend on Centre Court — it’s not a bad thing,” Federer said. “That’s what I was thinking today. It went by very quickly.

“It was cold. I’m happy to get out of there early and quickly so it was a perfect day.”

Murray became a little sloppy after a fine start but once he had the first set in the bag he did not look back, winning 6-4 6-3 6-2.

“He played some solid tennis, especially the first two sets, and then the third set I started to play better,” Murray said.

“Hopefully I can improve as it goes on.”

Elsewhere, 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt, unseeded this year, displayed his customary tenacity to see off the 11th-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets on Court One in the final men’s match of the day, claiming a superb 6-4 7-5 6-3 win, while the man who dismantled Federer at the French Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, shook off his Roland Garros semi-final loss to David Ferrer to get the better of David Goffin by a 7-6 (7/4) 6-4 6-3 margin.

In the women’s singles, Maria Sharapova battled through a tough Centre Court opener against fast-rising French player Kristina Mladenovic.

Twenty-year-old Mladenovic put former champion Sharapova under intense pressure in the opening set before the class of the world No 3 began to tell, resulting in a 7-6 (7/5) 6-3 victory for the Russian.

Sharapova said: “I’m pleased with this performance. The first matches on grass at Wimbledon are always really difficult and my opponent played extremely well.

“I’m really happy to be in the second round now.”

Fifth seed Sara Errani became an early casualty as she was upset by teenager Monica Puig.

Italian Errani, who reached the semi-finals of the recent French Open before losing to eventual winner Serena Williams, went down 6-3 6-2 to her 19-year-old Puerto Rican opponent.

Victoria Azarenka had an injury scare after hurting her knee in a fall on Court One.

The second seed, who has been a losing semi-finalist in each of the last two years, was a set and a break ahead of Portugal’s Maria Joao Koehler when she fell awkwardly at the back of the court.

It appeared she had suffered a knee injury that might end her involvement in the tournament, but after a long period of treatment the Belarusian ploughed on and clinched a 6-1 6-2 win.

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