When Rafael Nadal talks about tennis, it is often about the fight, about the struggle of competition to win a point, a set, a match and a tournament. He uses the word "suffering" to describe the work required to transform dream to expectation to reality.
Fittingly, there is perhaps no better word than suffering to describe Nadal himself. He is the reigning Olympic gold medalist, and he was scheduled to carry the Spanish flag at the opening ceremonies. But Thursday, he pulled out of the London Games, releasing a statement that said he was "not in condition" to compete.
Perhaps Nadal purposely meant to be so vague. For here is a player whose 2012 season has been tumultuous, from the lows of losing an epic final to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open, to suffering a listless loss at Indian Wells to Roger Federer, to an injury walkover in Miami against Andy Murray. Then there was the redemptive clay season, in which he won four titles and beat Djokovic three times, including the French Open final. That gave Nadal a record seventh title, while denying Djokovic a career Grand Slam. However, Nadal suddenly spiraled on grass, losing a tune-up to Philipp Kohlschreiber and then came the shocker at Wimbledon, the five-set loss to 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol. And now this.
Under such a volatile backdrop, "not being ready" to compete covers a lot of ground. It could mean that Nadal's knees, always a concern for him, have flared. It could mean that Nadal is deeply uncomfortable with his game, especially on grass. It could mean that he is still suffering from the fatigue of the clay season, in which he expended tremendous reserves of mental, physical and emotional energy to overcome Djokovic, his own doubts about his game and the challenge of winning at Roland Garros a seventh time. It could mean all of the above.
But this is clear now: It was premature after his Roland Garros triumph to declare Nadal back to his clear-minded dominance. If anything, at 26, he faces greater challenges. And it starts with his physical condition. Before withdrawing from the Olympics, he also withdrew from a July charity exhibition against Djokovic. Nadal also has to regain his mental edge and deal with a resurgent Federer. More than either of the other top two players, Nadal's rugged, physical style of play has always left him susceptible to both physical and emotional burnout.
Fifteen months ago, Nadal was the top-ranked player in the world. He is now No. 3 and closer in points to No. 4 Murray (only 1,445 separate them) than he is to No. 2 Djokovic (2,095) and No. 1 Federer (2,170). Nadal has not played a tournament since losing to Rosol and hasn't won a title off the dirt since October 2010, when he won in Tokyo. Nadal hasn't won a non-clay Masters 1000 or non-clay Grand Slam event since September 2010, when he beat Djokovic for his only U.S. Open title.
The U.S. Open holds much intrigue, because each of the world's top three players -- Djokovic in Melbourne, Nadal in Paris and Federer in London -- have won a Grand Slam this year. But Nadal's showing in New York carries even greater importance: He must defend 1,200 points for making last year's final (losing to Djokovic), but more importantly, he must first be fit enough to get on the court. Without the Olympics, he has two Masters 1000 events, in Toronto and Cincinnati, leading up to Flushing Meadows.
It did not seem so when he hoisted the trophy at Roland Garros, but Nadal appears to be at something of a crossroads, and only he knows just how serious it is.