It looks like fans' wait to see Rafael Nadal return to the tennis court just got a whole lot longer. The 26-year-old Spaniard officially withdrew from the Australian Open on Friday, citing the same stomach virus that kept him out Qatar of this week as the reason.
Here is Nadal's full statement, via the Associated Press (h/t ESPN):
My knee is much better and the rehabilitation process has gone well as predicted by the doctors. But this virus didn't allow me to practice this past week, and therefore I am sorry to announce that I will not play in Doha and the Australian Open.
Sure, that all sounds well and good on paper. However, there are some who feel it's Nadal's knee, not some stomach virus, that is truly keeping him out of 2013's first Grand Slam tournament.
That theory is championed (or at the very least buoyed) by a quote from Nicolas Almagro in a Friday media session. According to Yahoo! Sports' Shane Bacon, Almagro said that his countryman did not want to play in Melbourne due to the effect the grueling five-set matches could have on his knees.
Well, of course it's a surprise, we were talking with him and he told me he’s not 100 percent right now and wants to wait a little bit. He doesn't want to play in Melbourne, it's five sets, his knee's not really good, he's not ready for that. Well, we are waiting for him, we need to wait until South America, in one month, maybe he will be ready.
All told, Almagro's insinuation makes a whole lot of sense. Though Qatar could have been a great tune-up for Nadal, the Australian Open does not start until Jan. 14. That's a little less than a three-week window in which Nadal could have recovered and gotten himself back into form for an opening-round match.
Obviously, if Nadal's knee is not 100 percent and he's not in major-championship shape, then he should sit out. There's no reason to risk further injury to play in a tournament in which he would be a heavy underdog.
However, the long-term implications of his withdrawal are far more disconcerting.
Assuming Almagro isn't just making things up, the fact that Nadal is still unready to play has to make one wonder about his future. Even assuming the 11-time Grand Slam champion returns in February (which may seem lofty at this point), it would mark a full seven-month absence due to knee tendinitis.
Remember, this isn't exactly what you would call a one-time anomaly either. Nadal's knee injury and recovery don't compare to Adrian Peterson returning to rush for 2,000 yards nine months after an ACL tear. Though that is one of the most impressive athletic feats in recent memory, it was a freak occurrence.
On the other hand, Nadal's latest bout with tendinitis marks the culmination of a five-year bout with knee problems. In particular, the word "tendinitis" has been thrown around with Nadal dating back to 2008, when he retired from the BNP Paribas Masters due to the problem.
Since then, only one season (2011) has gone by with Nadal not having to miss time due to a knee-related problem. This is a chronic, career-threatening problem that has only become exacerbated as time goes by.
And, truth be told, it's impossible to not wonder about the toll this latest absence has taken on his game. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer all have played straight through Nadal's absence and carried the tennis world without problem. They're fresher in terms of recent production and, in the case of Djokovic and Murray, are one year younger than Nadal.
There's no denying that the Spaniard is one of the best players not only of this era, but in the history of the sport. However, with this latest withdrawal comes the sobering realization that Nadal may never return to otherworldly heights.