Have you ever seen anyone play with the same kind of ruthless tenacity as Rafael Nadal? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. No one has, and while the stats don’t track such a thing, we all know it.
But it’s that same inexorable drive that has also led to injury after injury for the 14-time major champion. Nadal aggravated his right wrist in late July and hasn’t played since. On Monday, we received word the Spaniard has pulled out of the US Open, a serious blow not only for him but for the fans.
The world's No. 2 is only three Slams behind Roger Federer on the all-time list, and you have to wonder how much more damage Nadal's body can take. Considering the nature of his game, Nadal's mileage far exceeds his 28 years of age.
So what does it mean? Here goes nothing:
The 43rd chapter in today’s greatest rivalry must wait: What matchup can we possibly get geeked up for more than Rafa-Novak Djokovic? They’ve played 42 times -- more than any duo in the history of the men’s game -- and their battles are nothing short of impossible shot-making and down-to-the-wire epics. Hyperbolic, you say? Perhaps, but even the mundane encounters are more hair-raising than some of the best barn-burning matchups between any other players. During last year’s finale at the Open, they played an excruciating 54-stroke point. It was a ridiculous back-and-forth with elastic defense and violent groundstrokes that ended when Nadal hit a backhand into the net. Safe to say, we won’t get a point like that this year.
Roger Federer reality: No one has played better tennis than Federer has this summer. Make that four straight finals, including a Masters 1000 triumph in Cincinnati this past weekend, where the 17-time Slam champ quashed a star-studded lineup, including Andy Murray, Milos Raonic and David Ferrer. But there was a conspicuous absence in the field: Nadal, who owns a lopsided 23-10 record against Federer. And let’s be real here: Even though Nadal has been AWOL since Wimbledon, what were the odds Federer could get by him in New York (which, by the way, is the one Slam venue where they have never met)? Yes, Federer’s form is better than it has been in a few years, but it’s hard to imagine anyone waging any serious coin on Federer if he were to play Nadal, without some serious hedging.
Possible future concern: If there is one common denominator in the litany of Nadal’s injuries, it is -- with the exception of an abdominal ailment in 2009 against Juan Martin del Potro -- the fact they were all in the lower body. Oh, that blasted knee, which first impaired him a decade ago at the French Open and then again at the 2010 Aussie Open. A knee injury also kept Nadal out of action for 7½ months in 2012. And if you’re keeping track, he has also suffered hamstring and foot setbacks throughout his career.
Speaking of del Potro, who also is out of the US Open as he heals from wrist surgery, you have to wonder if there will be any long-term repercussions for the towering Argentine, who has not played a tour match since February because of recurring wrist setbacks. Worse, del Potro’s career has been severely disrupted by his ongoing wrist issues, and he has never come close to returning to top form since winning the 2009 US Open.
Defending champ disappearing act: The previous time a defending champ failed to play the US Open? It was del Potro, sadly, who withdrew because of his aforementioned wrist injury in 2010. And seven years earlier, Pete Sampras failed to show up in New York. But Sampras had a pretty good reason: He had retired. Now there's Nadal, who not only will miss an arduous two weeks in New York, but who also missed the entire summer hard-court circuit. No one knows exactly when Nadal will return, but assuming he is healthy in the fall, perhaps we’ll see the Spaniard play some indoor ball where he has (in)famously never fared very well.
Points ramifications: Almost equally as devastating as Nadal’s omission are the points he's losing. Last season, he swept the summer hard-court season, winning Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open. No one had pulled off this trifecta since Andy Roddick 10 years earlier. But now Nadal leaves 4,000 points on the table -- 1,000 each from the Masters 1000 events and 2,000 at the US Open. What does this mean? If Federer wins the title, he will officially usurp Nadal as the No. 2 player in the world.