Rafael Nadal's recent withdrawal from the 2012 London Olympics seemed to most—at face value—as a necessary sacrifice required to prolong a career that has been repeatedly plagued by injury. And it was, but it was also more than that.
Participating in the London Olympics was important to Nadal for a number of strategic reasons. The most obvious of these was that it was a chance to represent his country on the biggest stage of all, at a time when Spain could use something to smile about.
The second reason was that a second win at the Olympics would be insurance in case he's unable to reach Roger Federer’s Grand Slam record.
A little less than two years ago, shortly after Nadal won the 2010 U.S. Open title—his ninth major overall—and was in the process of putting together one of the best seasons of his career—if not his best—14-time Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras claimed (via Setanta Sports) that Nadal could surpass Roger Federer's Slam record, but only if he scheduled his tennis year better.
Two major titles and two months shy of two years later, Nadal has managed his schedule better, but the rewards have been hard-fought and few.
Nowadays, Nadal cannot trust his body or his game with any degree of certainty, and his ability to catch up to Federer and surpass him is under massive scrutiny.
Quite unlike his contemporaries Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer, Nadal is faced with a number of health problems. Firstly, there are restraints his tendonitis—an injury that has recurred times without number over the past seven to eight years—places on his ability to play the game to his maximum potential and also the restraints his style of play places on his body.
Nadal’s predicament is double-edged. In order to be the best he can be, he's restricted to playing a high-octane, no-inch-surrendered brand of tennis that he could do without. And in doing so—in his innocent quest to be the best he can be—he's destroying his body.
At 26 years of age, Nadal is no longer the Captain Jack Sparrow of tennis. He just can't be that guy who beats the best in the world while jumping backwards through hoops of fire—not anymore. And that was the premise of Sampras' prediction.
There is the camp that believes that while Nadal has many more majors within his reach, his body will simple not be able to cope.
There is also the camp that believes that Nadal doesn’t have any real major prospects outside his beloved clay—and not merely because of his body, but because he just doesn’t.
Personally, I think that careful planning of the next 12 months will be instrumental in bringing Nadal to his desired goals.
Can Rafael Nadal still surpass Roger Federer's Grand Slam record?
Notably, Sampras went on to say that Federer could win more major titles.