Rafael Nadal has had an astonishingly great career, which is good because his glory days are now officially behind him.
This isn't a conclusion at which I'm happy to arrive, but the news of Rafa's withdrawal from the Australian Open makes it unavoidable.
In case you've missed it, Nadal was set to return from a knee injury that has kept him off the professional court since last year's Wimbledon. Then he was hit with a stomach virus and has consequently withdrawn from the year's first major.
According to The Guardian's Katy Murrells, Nadal said that his illness means he is "unable to get ready in time to tackle the rigors of a grand slam."
Considering that the Australian Open is still over two weeks away, it is tough to believe that a stomach virus is the real reason for his early withdrawal. The natural thought here is that Nadal has suffered some kind of setback with his knee.
Of course, Nadal is not going to admit that. Murrells also has this quote from Nadal:
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. As my team and doctors say, the safest thing is to do things well. I simply would not be doing myself justice if I went down there so unprepared.
There is no doubt that playing in a Grand Slam is demanding, and considering that Nadal has missed over six months of tennis, it is going to take him some time to get into elite form.
However, while that may be an adequate justification for his withdrawal from the tournament, it is also an indictment of his future. Nadal has had all this time to get into "Grand Slam shape." Had his knee really been responding well, he would have already been prepared to play in Australia, and this virus would be a minor setback.
Nadal will now likely turn his attention to getting up to full speed to return to the French Open, where he has owned the clay courts.
This could be a recurring theme for Nadal. The player once regarded as a clay-court specialist could be relegated to being just that.
Nadal is only 26, but his all-out, aggressive style and the countless tennis matches he has played have left his body behaving like that of a 50-year-old's.
It is difficult to imagine his wobbly knees making it through a full season at this point in his career, and with rising young studs Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, it is tough to see Nadal winning another major that is not played on clay, and with that, Nadal will never be able to return to being the No. 1 player.
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