Ace in the hole

THERE WAS SOMETHING missing. As the Australian Open entered its second week, otherwise known as go time for the players believing they can win a major, Rafael Nadal's absence was conspicuous. It was felt. For the past eight years, go time has always included Nadal, but he hasn't been seen on a tennis court since Wimbledon due to injuries and ailments. The hardcourts of Melbourne were never his best surface, of course; the 26-year-old has claimed just one of his 11 grand slam titles there. But Nadal could always be counted on to put on a show in Australia, as he did in his unforgettable loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2012 final, one of the greatest matches in the history of the sport, a 5-hour, 53-minute epic.

We may, in fact, never see another player quite like Nadal. The current sports narrative has been under assault by corporate homogenization (the stadium promos, jock jams, websites and TV advertising are now the same in every market) and by a sterile reliance on numbers. But Nadal can't be homogenized; his impact can't be reduced to quantitative analysis. He is all art and imagination.

The Nadal onrush -- the twisted snarl, the precise adjustment steps that create the impossible angles, the OCD quirks and the over-the-head lariat follow-through on the forehand that makes tennis coaches around the world cringe while their students beam -- is one of the great poetic images in sports. It is the flair that was missing during the last Olympics (when his knees prevented him from defending the gold medal he won in Beijing) and the U.S. Open (where he did not have the chance to reclaim the championship he lost to Djokovic in 2011). It is the flair that is missing in, for one, Andy Murray, who possesses Nadal's talent but not the showstopping charisma, nor the historical relevance.

This is also why Nadal matters: Of the Big Four, he is the only one with a winning record against each of the other three. When Roger Federer was threatening to overrun tennis the way Michael Jordan did basketball, it was Nadal who provided the rivalry that rebalanced the game. Federer is the greatest player of all time, but he is 10-18 against Nadal. That meant that unlike the Jordan age, in which there were pretenders who couldn't finish the deal, a player existed whom Federer had to respect, if not fear. The two elevated each other -- and the sport.

Likewise, when Djokovic rose to become the best player in the game, it was the specter of Nadal that fueled him. One of the best dramas in sports was watching Nadal lose to Djokovic in seven straight finals (including three majors), wondering what he would do, how he would respond to a player who was better, tougher, perhaps even more relentless. When Nadal defeated Djokovic three straight times following their Australian Open epic -- most memorably in the French Open final, denying his rival the career grand slam -- he displayed, even in an age of gazillionaires, how real and intense and personal true competition can actually be. Murray knows this side of Nadal better than anyone. He has a major now, accomplished at the U.S. Open with Nadal on the sideline, but he can't erase the fact that Nadal has knocked him out of majors six times, four in semifinals.

His rivals need him back. Tennis needs him back. And thankfully it now appears he will return to action in mid-February. Still, it's impossible to say what Nadal will be when he does step onto the world stage again. He is much like Earl Campbell. From the day his raw, muscular game arrived, he seemed destined to be the victim of a certain irony to which Campbell, in far more dire terms, can relate: The relentlessness of his game punished not only his opponents but Nadal himself.

Maybe Nadal will try to end points faster. Maybe he'll use that 130 mph serve more often. Maybe, since he hasn't won a major title on a surface other than clay since beating Djokovic in the 2010 U.S. Open final, he'll tailor his schedule away from hardcourts at the expense of his ranking.

All of this is unknown. What is known is that whenever a champion is crowned in a tournament field without Nadal, the game is a little less energetic, a little less historic and a lot less fun.

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