The Racquet Scientist: Rafa's Knees
Rafael Nadal, the defending gold medalist at the upcoming Olympic Games and athlete originally scheduled to carry the flag of his native Spain in the opening ceremonies in London, has pulled out, citing insufficient preparation. It's a terrible blow for Spain's hopes and pride, but an even bigger one for Nadal, whose chronic tendinitis of the knees appears to be worsening.
During Wimbledon, where Nadal was unexpectedly upset by Lukas Rosol in the second round, sources close to the Spanish camp told me that Nadal underwent multiple MRI examinations while still in London, and that the diagnosis for his conditions is tendinopathy. I believe the diagnosis indicates a heightened threat to Nadal's health and the future of his career, but I'm not sure about that. The language barrier kept me from getting more precise answers and nothing in what research I've done at this remove is conclusive either way.
In London, my colleague Alex Delmas of Madrid's Diario As was pessimistic about Rafa's Olympics future. He told me that the main reason Nadal continued to hold out hope to particpate was because of his role as Spain's flag bearer. Nadal's announcement today bears that out, he told the Associated Press: "This is one of the saddest days of my career as one of my biggest ambitions, that of being Spain's flag bearer in the opening ceremony of the games in London, cannot be."
Beyond that, Alex (and other members of the press corps that closely follow Nadal) had almost written off Nadal's chance of defending his gold medal. They knew that Nadal needed to rest and treat his tendinitis during and after Wimbledon, and were sure that he his preparation for the Olympic games would be cursory at best. In short, they expected nothing of him, performance-wise.
I imagine Nadal himself has been torn about what to do because of the depth-of-field among the Spanish male players. The cutoff for direct acceptance into the Olympic draw was based on the rankings of June 11 (immediately after the French Open); the top 56 men and women were automatically accepted, but with a limit of four per gender, per nation.
At the time, Spain had five men in the Top 20, one at No. 22 (Marcel Granollers), and nine in The top 56. The fifth-highest ranking Spaniard was No. 17 Feliciano Lopez—destined to be shut out because of the four-man limit. Should Nadal go to London mainly to carry his nation's flag, then bomb out in the singles, Spain's chances at a medal would be diminished. He elected to do what most of his colleagues would describe as the right thing.
"I have to think about my companions, I can't be selfish and I have to think of what's best for Spanish sport, especially tennis and Spanish players, and give fellow sportsmen with better preparation the chance to compete," Nadal said, according to the AP. "I tried to hurry my preparations and training to the very last minute, but it was not to be."
The intriguing question now is, who will replace Nadal? If it isn't Lopez, then Nadal's withdrawal is an empty gesture. When Andrea Petkovic withdrew from the Games (also with injury), the choice of her replacement apparently reverted to the ITF and the German federation, which nominated Mona Barthel—who missed direct acceptance the first time around because she was just the fifth-highest German.
I have to believe that the Spanish federation has already taken steps to ensure that it can field a four-man team. Nick Imison, an ITF media officer, just emailed to inform me that the ITF has turned over the decision in the Nadal case to the Spanish federation and is awaiting that body's nomination. Odds are excellent that Lopez will get the call.
Lopez us a left-hander whose attacking style can be lethal on grass. Unfortunately for Spain, he's been slumping badly in recent weeks; he won exactly one match between the Madrid Masters and the end of Wimbledon, and has fallen to No. 30.