You cannot be a tennis fan without embracing all the players who give the game dimension and depth.
The one player who has broadened the fanbase more than any other is Rafael Nadal.
The reason is simple—Nadal has never fit the stereotype of the traditional tennis champion. You would never confuse Nadal with Roger Federer, for example, because his style and demeanor on the court are so remarkably different. Yet the two continue to complement each other because both advanced the game of tennis to its current high level.
Nadal burst onto the scene as a teenager wearing sleeveless tank tops and “pirate pants.” His all-out aggression attracted legions of young fans who wished to emulate the Spaniard on the court.
Winning his first French Open title on his very first try as a teenager in 2005 made the tennis world sit up and take notice. In 2006, Nadal proved the victory was not a fluke by winning at Roland Garros for the second consecutive time, defeating world No. 1 Roger Federer.
In fact, Nadal would win the French Open title four times in succession before falling to Swede Robin Soderling in 2009—the only year Federer was able to win the title.
In the beginning, most regarded Nadal as a clay court player—someone who was not able to win major titles on other surfaces. But that all changed in 2008 when Nadal, after getting close in prior years, was able to defeat Roger Federer at his core—Centre Court at Wimbledon.
It was an epic five-set match with enough drama to cause a nation to collectively hold its breath until the last ball was struck.
Nadal made it very clear that he was not satisfied to reign on clay alone. Now, he owned his fifth grand slam title, won on the storied lawns of Wimbledon. The man from Majorca refused to be pigeon-holed as merely a great clay-courter.
He was determined to be a great tennis player—period.
Soon after conquering Federer at Wimbledon in 2008, Nadal took over the No. 1 ranking, which he held for the remainder of 2008, losing it after the French Open in 2009. Injury made Nadal withdraw from tennis, unable to defend his Wimbledon title.
He regained the No. 1 ranking in 2010, holding it a total of 102 weeks in total before losing it to Novak Djokovic in 2011.
Nadal would win his first hard-court major in 2009 at the Australian Open and his first U.S. Open in 2010 after capturing his second Wimbledon title.
In 2011, Nadal, along with the rest of the players on tour, fell to Novak Djokovic. The two men contested three out of four of the grand slam finals prior to Wimbledon in 2012. Nadal lost to Djokovic each time.
His only shining moment was winning the French Open title for the seventh time earlier this summer—defeating Novak Djokovic in the final.
But after being upset by Czech Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon in 2012, Nadal has not played a match on tour, citing knee problems. Nadal withdrew for nine weeks in 2009 with similar problems with his knees.
To date, he has been out seven weeks, missing the 2012 Olympics and the subsequent U.S. hard-court season.
Nadal’s announced withdrawal from the 2012 U.S. Open has sent ripples through the field and through the tennis world in general because the event definitely loses some luster without Nadal in the field.
The man walks out on court and you can feel his pent-up aggression and raw determination, as Nadal bounces up and down waiting to strike the first blow.
Nadal brings an aura to the game that no one else can. That is not to say Nadal is not humble and polite, because he is all of that, just like other players.
When he plays, however, he displays his extreme desire to win for all the world to see. He does it in the way he plays, never giving an inch and never allowing his opponent a moment to relax.
His withdrawal, unfortunately, may be a harbinger of the future for Nadal, whose style of play does his body, especially his knees, no good. This is true, more so, on artificial surfaces, where the wear and tear on his knees is more pronounced.
With three quarters of the tennis season played on hard courts, it is difficult to imagine that Nadal will be playing tennis at age 30 and beyond. According to a report from tennis.com, Nadal has stated that he will not return to tennis unless his knees are fully healthy again.
The impact of "less Nadal” on tour leaves a huge hole at the top of the men’s game that no one else can fill. There is no “future Nadal” playing today. There may never be another player in quite the same league as Rafael Nadal.
No doubt, Nadal will return for the clay-court season. But playing less and less will be his future unless his camp decides on surgery or some other physical option.
In the meantime, we all suffer with less drama, less intensity with Nadal not on the court at this year’s U.S. Open.