Rafael Nadal’s true medium is clay. For the past seven seasons, only the Majorcan truly mastered the surface.
No one wielding a tennis racket came close to equaling or besting Nadal on the red dirt.
On the other Grand Slam court surfaces, however, Nadal does not stand uniquely alone at the top.
He is no better on grass or on hard courts than a handful of other top-ranked players.
Because Nadal had ambitions to be the best tennis player in the world, he learned to transfer his natural talent honed on clay to winning on grass courts and finally on the artificial surfaces.
In 2008, Nadal achieved his goal to become the top-ranked player in the world. Then again in 2010, he became the youngest male ever to win a career Grand Slam when he finally won the US Open.
He added to that honor since he had won the gold medal in 2008 in Beijing, holding a "golden" career Grand Slam.
But it cost Nadal.
His aggressive style of play central to winning on clay was difficult to sustain on the harder surfaces. His knees, assaulted by constant pounding, stopping and starting, weakened. Tendinitis has become a persistent problem.
Yet, Nadal is a fixture in the game—a crowd favorite. His personality is as unique as his style of play.
The US Open will just not be the same this year.
Nadal's absence in 2012 diminishes the US Open because he brings flair and passion to the court in a manner no one else duplicates.
For example: Nadal standing in stark contrast to the smooth, effortless movements of Roger Federer has made watching their contests extremely compelling over the past eight seasons.
No one plays the game in quite the same style and with the same overtly grim determination to win as Nadal.
His aggressive style has won him legions of fans, most of whom are very young.
In the beginning they loved his youth, his "pirate pants" and his sleeveless shirts. Those outwardly bold and in-your-face actions on court were countered by Nadal's humble and softly spoken assessments once the match ended.
Taking his place at this year's Open is the No. 4 seed David Ferrer, who is supremely fit and well-liked by his fellow pros and by tennis fans.
But Ferrer is no Nadal.
On hard courts at the U.S. Open, Ferrer will not present the same awe-struck factor that opponents facing Nadal often feel.
Nadal's absence will be felt by tennis fans around the world.
The immediate reaction of most players when they heard Nadal had withdrawn from the 2012 US Open had to be relief.
It meant that there was no way the player would have to face the arduous task of trying to defeat Nadal—regardless of the draw.
It became one less thing to worry about during two weeks (if you were lucky) of competition at the Open.
Instead, it meant you might have to face David Ferrer instead of Rafael Nadal on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows in the opening round.
But the player who benefits most in all this might be the No. 2 seed, Novak Djokovic.
Once Nadal was eliminated from the draw, Andy Murray moved up to become the No. 3 seed and David Ferrer moved in as the No. 4 seed.
As it worked out, Ferrer was drawn into Djokovic's half of the draw, while Murray was sent over to face the No. 1 seed Roger Federer.
That means that someone not in the top four will reach the semifinals where Djokovic hopes to be waiting.
Last year Djokovic had to put down both Federer and Nadal to win in New York City. The triumph rendered the Serb almost worthless for the rest of the 2011 season.
This year the Serb will only have to face one top seed—either Federer or Murray—in the final, if the rankings hold.
While on the top half, Federer or Murray, again, will have to defeat two of the three top-ranked seeds in order to win the US Open in 2012.
Djokovic definitely benefits most from Nadal's absence.
Currently Andy Murray has accumulated 7,290 ATP ranking points, while Rafael Nadal sits right above him with 8,715—a scant lead of 1,425 points going into the 2012 US Open.
Last year Nadal finished the Open as a finalist, winning 1,200 points. These points will fall away at the conclusion of the Open with nothing to add back in since Nadal will not play in 2012.
Murray lasted until the semifinals last year, losing to Nadal. He gained 720 points that he will lose at the end of the tournament.
As the US Open ends, Nadal will have 7,515 points remaining, and Murray will have 6,570.
If Murray, however, advances to the finals, he would add an additional 1,200 points. With a total of 7,770 points, Murray would ease past Nadal on the rankings ladder, moving up to the No. 3 spot while Nadal drops to No. 4.
The main reason Murray has an opportunity to accomplish this is because Nadal withdrew from the last major of the year—the 2012 US Open.
Nadal's absence could prove to be a huge impetus for the No. 3 seed Murray to play his best tennis of the year...after the Summer Olympics.
Roger Federer won the US Open consecutively from 2004 to 2008. His five titles place him in a tie with Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors.
Since 2009, Federer has been trying to win that elusive sixth title—seeking to get back to the winning formula that brought him so much success at Flushing Meadows.
Recently, after winning his seventh title at Wimbledon earlier this summer and recapturing the No. 1 ranking, Federer's confidence has soared.
He will enter the competition at the Open capitalizing on that old competitive edge he once felt any time he stood on the courts of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Adding to his level of confidence is the assurance that he will not meet Rafael Nadal in 2012.
Although the two have never played each other during the US Open, there is no player who brings Federer's confidence level down like Rafa.
In the 28 times the two have met, Nadal has won 18 times or 64 percent of the time. Nadal has become a real stumbling block for Federer over the years—especially on tennis' biggest stages.
But that will not be an issue for Federer at the Open this year, just as it was not at Wimbledon.
At some point in time, the youngest players who have been struggling to break the stranglehold at the top of the men's game, must find a way to break through.
With Nadal out of the 2012 US Open picture and David Ferrer inserted into the starting four, there is a glimmer of hope that someone new will be standing during the finals on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
When you look at Ferrer's quarter of the draw, it seems highly likely that John Isner or Richard Gasquet or even Phillipp Kohlschreiber might break through. The odds would, however, favor the big-serving Isner.
Even though some speculate that Milos Raonic might upset Andy Murray, throwing the whole tournament wide open—nonetheless, someone new will advance to the semifinals at the Open.
Winner of the 2009 US Open, Juan Martin del Potro is back fully fit, but scheduled to face Djokovic in the quarterfinals. His presence, however, adds new-found hope that players other than the top four can win a major.
It is hope and desire that keep players motivated.
As much as the tournament will miss the presence of one of its top stars, Nadal's absence this year enhances the dream for those players who toil in relative obscurity that they, too, can win a major.