World sport’s greatest individual rivalry as we know it may be over as Rafael Nadal’s ongoing woes continue.
Nadal’s Australian Open withdrawal on Saturday has not only robbed the tournament of one of its major drawcards, but also left the Spanish superstar’s very career in limbo.
Nadal’s second consecutive grand slam scratching will also end his seven-year reign in the world’s top four and his rankings slide will continue if he is unable to defend the mountain of points amassed during his most successful claycourt campaign ever last season.
With Novak Djokovic re-establishing himself as the game’s dominant force, Andy Murray emerging as the world No.1’s pre-eminent rival, Roger Federer in the twilight of his career and 26-year-old Nadal weak at the knees, the tennis landscape may have shifted forever.
No two men have slugged it out in more grand slam deciders than Nadal and Federer but, unless Nadal makes a complete recovery from tendinitis in his left knee, sports fans may never see the two tennis titans clash again on the biggest stages – major finals.
While Federer has vowed to continue playing on until 2016 and remains No.2 in the world, the Swiss maestro turns 32 in August – and there are no guarantees for Nadal.
As it stands, with Nadal to lose his top-four status, he will no longer be guaranteed to avoid Djokovic, Federer and Murray until semi-finals at the slams.
He has been sidelined for six months already and is now targeting a return at Acapulco on February 27, although the 11-times major winner hasn’t completely ruled out playing at an earlier event if his recovery goes well.
The Majorcan’s latest setback stems from a virus that he and his medical team feel has cruelled his chances of being competitive at the Open starting on January 14 in Melbourne.
In a statement, Nadal said he simply wouldn’t have the proper preparation to play in a best-of-five-set tournament straight away.
Nadal stressed that his decision had nothing to do with the knee tendinitis which led to his hiatus since suffering a shock second-round loss to then 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon in June.
“My knee is much better and the rehabilitation process has gone well as predicted by the doctors,” Nadal said.
“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.
“As my team and doctors say, the safest thing to do is to do things well and this virus has delayed my plans of playing these weeks.
“I always said that my return to competition will be when I am in the right conditions to play and after all this time away from the courts I’d rather not accelerate the comeback and prefer to do things well.”
Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, said it was “not conceivable” for the former No.1 to make his comeback at Melbourne Park.
“That his first event is a best-of-five-sets event, he wouldn’t be ready for that,” he said.
Nadal’s knee injury prevented him from defending his Olympic singles gold at the London Games, where he was supposed to be Spain’s flag bearer in the opening ceremony.
He also had to pull out of the US Open and Spain’s Davis Cup final against the Czech Republic, which his teammates lost without him.
Nadal, currently ranked fourth, won the Australian Open in 2009 and last year lost to Djokovic in an epic final that lasted five hours and 53 minutes, the longest men’s grand slam final on record.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said he understood Nadal’s decision.
“We just hope he gets better quickly and we see him back on the tour as soon as possible,” Tiley said.
“Tennis fans across the world have been missing him.”