Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal from the Olympic event is a sad time for the sport and for the player personally, but does it expose the darker side of the golden era of tennis?
It was no secret that Nadal was struggling with tendinitis in his left knee—he pulled out of an exhibition match against Novak Djokovic at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium at the start of this month—and he has been struggling with the problem for a while.
You will remember that he pulled out of Wimbledon in 2009, he withdrew at the Australian Open against Andy Murray in 2010, and he did so once again in the Miami semifinal earlier this year. This is in no way a new injury and even with a bit of R&R between tournaments, such as his little fishing trip after he was, to the shock of the world, knocked out of Wimbledon by Lukas Rosol, Nadal will still have to play through the pain barrier at times.
For a while now, players have been asking for changes to the schedule, but Nadal had over a month’s rest between the Australian Open and Indian Wells earlier this year.
Yes, his clay court schedule is hectic and probably does have an adverse effect on those knees, but that is a hugely important time of year for the 26-year-old. He is, after all, the "King of Clay" and while he could probably take a break by missing Barcelona, he needs to play most of the clay court season to continue his quest to return to world No. 1.
Nadal’s withdrawal from London 2012 is an earth-shattering blow to the event. He draws the crowds, and the world No. 3 was to be Spain’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony. You can tell by his choice of words just how much the occasion and defending his gold medal meant to him.
“I am not in condition to compete in the London Olympics and therefore will not travel as planned with the Spanish delegation to take part in the games," Nadal said.
“I have to think about my companions, I can’t be selfish and I have to think of what’s best for Spanish sport…and give fellow sportsmen with better preparation the chance to compete. I tried to hurry my preparations and training to the very last minute, but it was not to be.
“It is one of the saddest days of my career. You can imagine how difficult it was to take this decision.”
While the jury may still be out on whether Olympic gold is equivalent to a Grand Slam, gone are the days when it was seen as an "amateur" event. Even without Nadal, we can expect the competition at London to be one of quality. It will mirror what we have become accustomed to seeing throughout 2011 and the past six months.
However, Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray have taken the sport to such a level that their bodies are going to suffer at one point or another and they will play tournaments at less than 100 percent.
Their desire to better each other, to not miss out on valuable points and to gain an advantage in some way or another means that they will not always be able to play the schedule to their desired level.
Federer hurt his back earlier this year in Doha and was forced to withdraw in the semifinals, Murray apparently played through a back problem at the French Open while Djokovic struggled towards the end of last year.
The long, enthralling and jaw-dropping rallies are wonderful to watch, but the reality is that that level cannot be sustained throughout the year.
Nadal’s tendinitis problem could see him miss more than the Olympics, but skipping the start of the hard court season wouldn't be too much of an issue for Rafa in more ways than one.
In 2011, he lost to Ivan Dodig in the second round at Montreal, the quarterfinals to Mardy Fish at Cincinnati and the third round of Shanghai to Florian Mayer—where ranking points are concerned he has nothing much to worry about while Djokovic and Murray have points to defend.
Also, he wouldn’t suffer from missing Toronto, the next mandatory Masters 1000 event. He can miss Toronto, but injured or not, he is obliged to be on site within the first three days of the next 1000 event (Cincinnati) to conduct promotional activities over a two-day period.
Of course, Nadal could also benefit from missing the Olympics if he is back in time to play Toronto. While Djokovic and company will face the challenge of playing London 2012 and the Canadian event, Nadal could turn up at the Rogers Cup fresh as a daisy after a bit of downtime.
We all know that the bar has been raised by the top four, and while Nadal’s withdrawal from the Olympics may be a reminder about the constant calls for the structure of the calendar to be changed, we can only wonder what it is like for the guys who play week-in, week-out at the lower events.
At the end of the day, injuries are part and parcel of sport and it is how the players recover and learn to deal with their weaknesses that make them even stronger.