The US Open announced earlier today that 2010 champion and 2011 finalist Rafael Nadal has withdrawn from the event, as he did from the Olympics, with a recurrence of his knee tendinitis. Here are five thoughts on what this news means not just for the men’s field in New York but more generally.
1) This absence is the longest of Nadal’s career, at least since he became the Terror of the Terre Battue and the Riposte to Roger. And it’s not attributable to the truncated Olympic schedule, which has made 2012 especially arduous for leading contenders. According to Nadal’s group, the tendinitis began before Wimbledon, the halfway point of the season. Moving forward, one must wonder whether he either a) reduces his schedule further to minimize needless wear and tear (no exhibitions, no sub-1000 tournaments), or b) alters his grueling practice regimen to accommodate his battered body. Nadal relies on developing rhythm through matches and substantive practices, granted, but his clear superiority to the average ATP journeyman might allow him to use the early rounds to find his groove.
2) As he condoles with his archrival, Federer will struggle not to hide a smirk of elation. As long as Nadal remains in the draw of a major, he represents the greatest obstacle to the Swiss star, who has not defeated him in the best-of-five format since Wimbledon 2007. Without Nadal, the route to an 18th major title lies much more open at a tournament that Federer has won five times and where the surface suits him perhaps more than at any other. Considering that he holds the momentum for now in his rivalry with Djokovic, and never has lost to Murray at a major, the moment is now for him to put that record ever further out of reach.
3) Both Federer and Djokovic will be thrilled by the prospect of possibly drawing Ferrer in a US Open semifinal, and the man who does should have a significant advantage if the top two seeds do advance to the final past the third and fourth seeds. For Federer, replacing his nemesis with a player against whom he has a double digits-and-0 record must make his mouth water more than a box of Lindt chocolates. But the prospect is almost equally delicious for Djokovic, who might have struggled to recover from one of his brutal duels with Nadal for a final. Of course, players like Tsonga and Del Potro will lurk as hidden threats to both of the top seeds that could trouble them more than Ferrer.
4) Is this withdrawal a sign that the pulsating Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is not sustainable? The breathtaking physicality of their four consecutive major finals astounded even the more jaded observers who had followed the sport for decades. But the obvious toll that their playing styles exert on their bodies may not only truncate both of their careers but prevent their encounters from escalating into a fixture of the sport as durable as Federer-Nadal. If tennis does develop along the model of Djokovic and Nadal, expect shorter, more meteoric careers, more marquee withdrawals, and more pressure on the ATP to streamline its schedule.
5) No disrespect to the other leading contenders, but the ATP is a less exciting place without Rafa. Even those who feel neutral towards him probably will welcome his return in the fall or more likely in 2013. More importantly, the absence may rekindle Nadal’s passion for the sport, which had seemed to ebb just a little in the last two years. After he returned from his most significant previous absence in 2009, and played himself back into form, he enjoyed one of the best years of his careers in 2010. Something similar could unfold in 2013 when a rested, revitalized Rafa brings an elevated level of motivation, even for his standards, to the court.