Where does Rafael Nadal’s upset loss rank in sports history?

Chris Chase
Busted Racquet

John McEnroe called Rafael Nadal's loss to Lukas Rosol the biggest upset in tennis history. We tentatively agree. The world No. 100, with 19 career wins to his credit, upsets the 11-time Grand Slam champion and five-time defending finalist. There's too much instant hyperbole in sports today. This isn't one of those cases.

Yet we do need some perspective to determine where the upset ranks in sports history. If Nadal goes into a career tailspin (which we don't think will happen) or Rosol suddenly turns from a 26-year-old journeyman into a top-10 player (ditto) then the events of Thursday take on a different context. If Nadal gets back to winning Grand Slams on all surfaces and Rosol hovers around the lower reaches of the top 100, then McEnroe will be correct and we'll have just witnessed a sports miracle.

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For the time being, at least, does McEnroe's comment hold up? We looked at some of the biggest upsets in tennis and sports history to find where Rosol over Nadal ranks.


If we assume Nadal is still in his prime, there's no comparable upset in modern tennis. This is a list of the earliest Slam losses by other great male players in their prime:

Roger Federer -- semifinal

Roy Emerson -- Fourth round

Pete Sampras -- First round (Sampras' losses have asterisks. The first-round loss was on clay, which was never an upset for the big-hitting American. He did lose in the third round of the 1996 Australian Open while in his prime, but that was to Mark Philippoussis, who later became a top-10 player and two-time Slam finalist. If Rosol makes a similar rise, another reevaluation maybe needed.)

Bjorn Borg -- quarterfinal

Rod Laver -- fourth round

Nadal has them all beat. But even players who experienced less success didn't lose to No. 100 players during their top years. Jimmy Connors never did, nor did John McEnroe. Andre Agassi lost to No. 281 Doug Flach at Wimbledon in 1996, but even without knowing what Agassi was going through at the time (as we do know), nobody was ever going to compare Agassi's consistency with Nadal's.

The three most famous upsets in recent Grand Slam history are Sampras losing to George Bastl in the second round of Wimbledon in 2002, Lori McNeil over Steffi Graf in 1994 and Peter Doohan over Boris Becker in 1987. But Sampras was one Slam away from retirement and two years away from his last major title. It's not even in the same ballpark. Another is Lori McNeil's defeat of No. 1 Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1994. This is the most comparable to Rosol/Nadal since Graf was still at the height of her powers (she won six of her next seven Slams after the loss). McNeil was no slouch, though. She had defeated Graf two years before at the WTA Championships and was a former Slam semifinalist at the U.S. Open in 1987 (having defeated Chris Evert to get there). Graf > Nadal. But Rosol <<< McNeil. As for Becker? Please. He was a brash young pup at the time, not an established veteran champion.

There was another upset involving Nadal that could qualify. As good as he's been, Rafa isn't invulnerable on grass. He was on his dominant surface of clay when No. 25 Robin Soderling beat him at the 2009 French Open. We later learned that Nadal was suffering from injuries and family difficulties, while Soderling became a top-five player. Still, at the time, this was equally shocking.

Other sports

Rosol over Nadal is bigger than ...

Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson -- At the time it was stunning. In retrospect, it was inevitable. If we learn in five years that Nadal was raising pigeons, cheating on Robin Givens and punching Mitch "Blood" Green in a street fight, then we'll change our minds. It was only a matter of time before Tyson went down. And in a sport like boxing, where one punch is all it takes, a surprise knockout can't compare to winning three sets of six games made up of four points.

Villanova over Georgetown -- This barely qualifies as an upset. A conference team that played Georgetown tough in their previous two games that season?

New York Giants over New England Patriots/New England Patriots over St. Louis Rams/Denver Nuggets over Seattle Supersonics -- Upsets don't exist in modern professional team sports. Sorry, Dikembe.

Appalachian State over Michigan -- A staggering upset, yet one a number of people warned of when the Division IA powers agreed to play at the Big House.

Rosol over Nadal wasn't as big as:

Rulon Gardner defeats Alexander Karelin -- The Russian Greco Roman wrestler was 59-0 in major international competitions when he was stunned by the American at the 2000 Olympics. Karelin was at the end of his career, sure, but he hadn't had a point scored on him over a 10-year stretch and had been dominant earlier in the Olympic tournament.

New York Jets over Baltimore Colts, Super Bowl III -- This Joe Namath-led upset now fits neatly with the narrative of the AFL/NFL merger. At the time, it was almost unfathomable that the mighty Colts could go down.

USA over USSR, 1980 Olympic hockey semifinal -- Nothing is as big. Nothing will ever be as big.

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