His play is electrifying, with a grace and fluidity matched by few in the game today. Three years ago he was almost unarguably the best player in the game, superior to Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. Today, however, that must be questioned.
On Friday, Rafael Nadal announced that, due to a stomach virus, he won’t be partaking in the Australian Open this year, which starts on January 14th. This is the second consecutive major tournament he will miss, and he hasn’t played since last year’s Wimbledon, even skipping the London Olympics last summer. Over the last few years recurring knee injuries have plagued his career, slowly but surely putting an end to the argument that Rafa is the best there is.
It’s such a pity to see injuries hold back a player who is so talented, so captivating, and so dynamic. Just two years ago I sat in Arthur Ashe Stadium and watched him take down Andy Murray en route to his first ever U.S. Open Championship title, completing his Career Grand Slam in the process. The “King of Clay” had proven to everyone that he can win on any surface, against any opponent. Then Novak Djokovic got good. Really good. So good that he went on a 43 match win streak, during which he took down Rafa at the Australian Open. He eventually fell to Roger Federer at the French Open, but quickly rebounded and once again trumped Nadal at both Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. He finished off the year with an astounding 70-6 record.
The emergence of this new king on the court shook the tennis world. Between 2005 and 2010, every major except two had been won by either Nadal or Federer (Djokovic won the 2008 Australian, and Juan Martin del Potro took the 2009 U.S. Open title becoming, at the time, the only man ever to defeat both Federer and Nadal in the same major tournament). For five years it was a two-man sport but the Djoker changed that.
So what does this mean for the sport going forward? For one thing, the sport has obviously opened up. Roger is already in his early 30s and could potentially be reaching the end of his incredible career. Novak has made it clear that he is the man to beat, as he has held the world no. 1 ranking since the end of 2011. Moreover, Andy Murray finally hushed his critics when he won the first major title of his career at the U.S. Open last year. That came after he defeated Roger Federer for the gold medal at the London Olympics. It’s safe to say neither of them will go away any time soon.
So what does this mean for Rafa? It all depends on how he recovers and returns from these seemingly never-ending injuries and medical conditions. He is still the undisputed master of clay and will always be the favorite to win at Roland Garros—as long as he’s healthy, that is. And while a few years ago he was on pace to break Federer’s record for all-time slam titles, it’s far more uncertain now. Nadal would need seven more titles to surpass Federer, which is possible since he’s still relatively young at 26 years old. But he needs to get healthy, and stay healthy in order to return to the caliber of play that first got people’s attention not long ago.
Rafael Nadal’s play is the reason I started watching tennis, and for the sake of the sport I sincerely hope he can make a huge comeback and regain his no. 1 world ranking. It would be such a shame for him to have to stop playing because of his health and leave the rest of the tennis-watching world wondering what could have been.