Once Dominant, Rafael Nadal Surrounded by Question Marks

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Once Dominant, Rafael Nadal Surrounded by Question Marks
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Rafael Nadal following his stunning second-round loss at Wimbledon to Lukas Rosol.

Today, Rafael Nadal, No. 3 in the world, announced that he will be missing the U.S. Open, which is set to begin on Monday, August 27.

Nadal has not played a match since he was stunned in the second round at Wimbledon by Lukas Rosol, 6-7(9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Since then, Nadal has pulled out of the Summer Olympics—where he was the defending gold medalist—as well as two ATP Masters 1000 events in Toronto and Cincinnati.

Nadal's withdrawal will cost him his No. 3 ranking, since after the U.S. Open, he will have lost 1,380 ranking points: 180 points from the 2011 Cincinnati quarterfinals and 1,200 from the 2011 U.S. Open final. It's a near-certainty that reigning Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray will supplant him at No. 3.

The last time Nadal was out of the top three? March 22, 2010.

Nadal's knee injury—which first surfaced at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, when he withdrew before his semifinals match against Andy Murray—is just another stumble along his career path, which looked to be headed to new heights following his dominant 2010. That year, he won the final three majors, completed his career Grand Slam with his first U.S. Open title, and became the first player to win majors on clay, grass and hard courts in the same calendar year.

But a funny thing happened on the way to total domination of the tennis landscape: 2011—which was supposed to be the year that Nadal cemented his spot atop the rankings—became the year of Novak Djokovic.

En route to one of the greatest seasons of all time—one that saw him start the year 41-0 and was 58-1 and 64-2 at other points before a back injury derailed his post-U.S. Open season—Djokovic topped Nadal six times, with four of the victories coming at ATP Masters 1000 events (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome) and the other two wins coming in major finals (Wimbledon and U.S. Open, both of which were Djokovic's first career wins at those majors). Perhaps the most significant victories of the season were Djokovic's wins at Madrid and Rome, which are clay-court tournaments.

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Novak Djokovic celebrates his first US Open title, which came at the expense of Rafael Nadal.

For Nadal, losing his grip on the top spot in the world and relinquishing the upper hand in his rivalry with Djokovic put a huge dent in his confidence. Following his loss to Djokovic at the U.S. Open, Nadal struggled at the end of the season, losing to Murray in Tokyo, Florian Mayer in Shanghai and Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in London at the Year-End Championships. He managed to earn a measure of redemption at the Davis Cup final, where his wins over Argentinians Juan Monaco and Juan Martin del Potro helped Spain repeat as champions.

2012 was a new year, and it looked like Nadal was fully ready to turn the page on 2011. In an epic Australian Open final against Djokovic, Nadal took the first set, dropped the next two but forced a decisive fifth set by winning a fourth-set tiebreaker, 7-5.

Up a break and 4-2 in the final set, Nadal had an easy backhand down-the-line chance to go up to 40-15, but pushed it wide. Given new life, Djokovic was able to break back to 3-4. At 5-5, Nadal was broken again, and Djokovic saved a break point at 6-5 to go on to repeat as Australian Open champion. At the time, the thought was that even though Nadal had suffered a heartbreaking defeat, he had made progress and was getting closer to solving the Djokovic puzzle.

After middling results at the two major hard-court tournaments in the United States—a semifinal loss to Roger Federer at Indian Wells and the aforementioned withdrawal before the semifinals in Miami—the clay season arrived, and with it came a rejuvenated Nadal.

Nadal's clay-court conquests began in Monte Carlo, where he won his eighth straight title by defeating Djokovic, 6-3, 6-1. From there, it was on to Barcelona, where he topped compatriot David Ferrer, 7-6(1), 7-5. On the blue clay in Madrid, his countryman Fernando Verdasco shocked him in a third-round encounter, but Nadal was able to exact further revenge on Djokovic in Rome, beating him 7-5, 6-3.

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Rafael Nadal celebrating his record seventh French Open title.

Nadal got one final measure of revenge and redemption at the French Open, winning his record seventh title while at the same time denying Djokovic a chance at a Career Slam with a rain-delayed 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory. It was just another Roland Garros conquest for Nadal, who looked to be exhibiting no ill effects from the knee injury that knocked him out of Miami.

Given the return to form Nadal exhibited during the clay season, many were picking him to win his third Wimbledon crown, but nobody could have foreseen the second-round exit at the hands of Lukas Rosol, a journeyman from the Czech Republic who entered the tournament ranked No. 100 in the world. But out Nadal went, and we haven't seen him on a tennis court since.

Although it may be hard to fathom given his dominance just two years ago, Nadal's career is almost certainly coming to a crossroads. He's had a history of knee problems, as evidenced by his 2009 season, when he lost his only match of his career at Roland Garros, skipped Wimbledon (where he had been the defending champion) and getting blitzed at the U.S. Open by eventual champion del Potro in the semifinals.

Also, Nadal plays an extremely blue-collar, hard-hitting style of tennis, and given his advancing age (he just turned 26), it's fair to wonder if maybe, just maybe, his body—namely his knees—is starting to betray him. This latest injury appears to be very serious, as it has forced him to miss the Olympics as well as two high-level tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati.

Only time will tell whether this is just a blip in Nadal's career or whether this injury will be one of the first steps in a decline. What we do know is this: a healthy Nadal is one of the world's top players, a player who makes the powerful triumvirate of Federer, Djokovic and Murray into a "Fantastic Four."

Hopefully, Nadal will take the appropriate steps to recover from his injury and come back to the tour a rested, recharged player.

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