Regardless of the complaints that some have against him, Rafael Nadal is a great tennis player. He is an 11-time Grand Slam champion and probably the undisputed greatest clay court player ever. He is a fierce competitor and never gives up in a match. All of these qualities make him great. None of them, however, make him indispensable to the sport.
Tennis has survived injuries to great players before. Top players have missed tournaments and Slams and people were disappointed, but no one stopped watching. Other greats stepped up and fans enjoyed watching other players step up and other rivalries blossom. Indeed, the domination of the tour by so few people-that began with Federer and Nadal in 2004 and continues today with them, Djokovic, and Murray-is somewhat of a novelty in this sport. Yes, there are consistently great players. But there are usually other guys who can step up and win.
So why is Nadal’s current absence hurting tennis? We still have other great guys (Federer, Djokovic, Murray) who are dominating the tour. We still have entertaining matches and lower-tier players playing their hearts out daily. We still have top tournaments and top venues that are fun to travel to and fun to watch on television. So what is tennis losing without Nadal right now?
In a way, the domination by the “Big 4″ has made them dependent on each other. Not in their ability to play, certainly, but in their ability to keep fans’ interest. Federer always drew a following as a great champion, but it was his epic rivalry with Nadal that drew hardcore interest from many casual fans. Djokovic basically took over this sport last year, but it was Nadal who he had to face in the final of just about every big tournament he was in.
These are players that fans want to see go at it. For most casual fans, it’s no longer about the sport or even the level of play. It’s about the rivalries. That is what the media has built this sport around in the last decade or longer and they have really sold this sport on rivalries. Fans want to see rivalries. They look at tournaments expecting Nadal and Djokovic to meet in the final and are disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
The modern hardcore tennis fans are the same as they always were. They will watch the smaller tournaments. They enjoy seeing players in the lower half of the top 100 do well. Some will even watch Challengers if it’s an entertaining matchup. But the hardcore tennis fans are not the ones that drive the sport. The sport is driven by television money-and that comes from massive international audiences on TennisChannel, ESPN, Eurosport, etc.
And these audiences are not so interested in seeing top 100, or even top 10, players. These audiences want to see the great players beat up the lesser players and then face off against each other in what will go down as another epic in a great rivalry. And so for these fans, tennis needs Nadal. Fans want to see Nadal play Federer. They want to see Nadal play Djokovic. But mostly, they just want to see Nadal play. He was one of the two names in tennis (until last year, now Djokovic and perhaps even Murray have joined this group) that would be recognized by almost anyone, even a complete non-tennis fan. And that means that he is one of the few players who can draw eyes to television sets no matter who he is playing. And, whether you love Nadal or hate him, that is a factor that cannot be underestimated. And it is a factor that means that these tournaments at the end of the year will have fewer television viewers than usual, because one of the top 2 marketable names in tennis isn’t competing in them.