Rafael Nadal's decision to miss Wimbledon, Olympics part of larger gambit to prolong careerBy Jun 17, 2021
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Rafael Nadal's decision to miss Wimbledon, Olympics part of larger gambit to prolong career
At 35, Rafael Nadal says he’s skipping Wimbledon and the Olympics to try to “prolong my career.” Roger Federer, who started skipping Roland Garros at 34, should give Rafa hope that there will be life, and major titles, in his late 30s.
Published Jun 17, 2021
When Rafael Nadal walked off having lost for just the third time at Roland Garros on Friday, I wondered how he would get himself into the right frame of mind to try to climb another Grand Slam mountain at Wimbledon two weeks later. It would mean putting a defeat on what is essentially his home court, to his biggest rival, Novak Djokovic, behind him. It would mean adjusting to grass in 14 days instead of the usual 21, after spending two tough months on clay. It would mean finding a way to believe he could win a tournament he hasn’t won since 2010. Nadal doesn’t play majors to make the third or fourth round, or even the semifinals. It’s win or bust for him.
It turns out Rafa couldn’t do it. On Thursday, he announced that he won’t play Wimbledon or the Olympics this summer.
“It’s never an easy decision to take but after listening to my body and discuss it with my team I understand that it is the right decision,” Nadal said in a statement. “The goal is to prolong my career and continue to do what makes me happy, that is to compete at the highest level and keep fighting for those professional and personal goals at the maximum level of competition.”
Nadal has missed Wimbledon before, in 2004, 2009, and 2016. But this is the first time that he has skipped it with the purpose, as he says, of “prolonging my career” rather than due to a specific injury. Rafa cited the fact that there are only two weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon this year, rather than the normal three. And he did have a back injury earlier this season that he may still need to fully recover from. But this is also age-related. At 35, he’s admitting that he needs to protect his body, conserve his energy, and prioritize the majors where he stands the best chance of winning titles. One of those is the US Open, where he’s a four-time champion. He says he’ll be back for the North American hard-court season.
Roger Federer, Nadal’s older rival, has been down this road. In 2016, when he was 34, Federer skipped Roland Garros to concentrate on preparing for Wimbledon, and then did it again the following two years; in 2017 it paid off with a Wimbledon title. This year a 39-year-old Federer pulled out of Roland Garros midway through, and lost early at Halle. Put that performance together with Nadal’s withdrawals and this seems to be a moment when the balance of power in the Big 3 is shifting, perhaps permanently, in Djokovic’s direction. He’ll be a heavy favorite to win Wimbledon next month and tie them with 20 major titles.
Maybe the most surprising thing to me about Nadal’s Roland Garros performance what that he actually looked tired in the fourth set against Djokovic, the same way he looked tired in the last two sets of his loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open. That’s normal for most people, and for most 35-year-olds, but we haven’t seen it often from Rafa. And it’s a reminder that two-week events, with a best-of-five-set match every other day, are arduous undertakings.
In that sense, Nadal’s willingness to recognize his limitations by skipping one of those two-week events is a positive sign for anyone who hopes to see him compete for major titles into the future. He’s going to decline; what matters is how he manages that decline. The fact that Federer won three majors after age 34, and was one point from winning a fourth at 37, should give Nadal hope that it can be done.
“Sport prevention of any kind of excess in my body is a very important factor at this stage of my career in order to try to keep fighting for the highest level of competition and titles,” Rafa said.
Nadal said he’ll miss the spirit of the Olympic Games this summer, a feeling that “every sports person wants to live.” In his three Games, he won gold in singles and men’s doubles, and was the flag-bearer for Spain. But if skipping the Olympics means keeping that spirit alive a little longer, it’s a trade-off he’ll take. I’m guessing most tennis fans will take it, too.
Better to see Nadal a little less often, than to see him going at anything less than full blast. Rafa wouldn’t be Rafa if he couldn’t play every point as if it were his last.