Two of tennis’s biggest names pulled out of Wimbledon on Wednesday, in what was a demoralising day for the tournament. First Rafael Nadal revealed that he will be taking the next couple of months off, and then it was Naomi Osaka’s turn to withdraw.
In Osaka’s case, the sport is still dealing with the aftermath of last month’s controversy over press conferences. She announced before the French Open that she would be skipping her media duties because they damaged her mental health, only for the four grand-slam events to respond with a hardline statement threatening her with suspension.
Osaka abandoned the French Open at that point, saying that she was going to take some time away from the sport, and on Wednesday a message arrived from her management agency confirming that she will not be returning to the court until the Tokyo Olympics.
According to the message, “Naomi … is taking some personal time with friends and family.” Osaka is both the world No2 and the highest-paid female athlete in any sport, although her record at Wimbledon is an undistinguished four wins and four losses, and she has never reached the second week.
In Nadal’s case, it sounded as though he is suffering more from physical than mental burnout after a draining clay-court season, although the ennui of bubble life may have also been a factor in his decision not to play in either the Wimbledon Championships or the Olympics.
“It’s never an easy decision to take but after listening to my body and discussing it with my team I understand that it is the right decision,” said Nadal in a statement. “With the goal 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’s withdrawal from Wimbledon will leave world No1 Novak Djokovic as an almost unbackable favourite for the title. It also underlines what a disaster the French Open’s week-long postponement has been for the grass-court events.
With Roger Federer and Andy Murray both struggling with their own comebacks from injury, Wimbledon will now be set up as Djokovic against the next generation. And we know how that story tends to play out.
Less than a week ago, Nadal contested an unforgettable French Open semi-final with Djokovic. Towards the end of their exhausting 4hr 11min contest, his movement was clearly impaired, but he told reporters afterwards that he had been suffering from fatigue rather than an injury. Now he has the best part of two months to spend at home in Mallorca. One possible target for his comeback event would be the Cincinnati Masters on Aug 14.
Why Nadal's grass-court withdrawal makes sense
Nadal’s withdrawal from Wimbledon reflects the unique demands that grass-court tennis place on his knees. The ball skids through much lower on grass than it does on other surfaces, requiring players to assume a kind of fighting crouch. For Nadal, whose chronic knee tendinitis has forced him to turn to blood-spinning techniques in the past, the strain can be debilitating.
There was a five-year period in the middle of the last decade when he didn’t make so much as a quarter-final at Wimbledon – a reflection not only of his struggles on the grass but also his massive investment of energy in the clay-court season.
His form improved markedly in 2018 – when he came within a couple of points of reaching the final – and 2019, perhaps in response to the All England Club’s decision to push Wimbledon back in the calendar, thus giving players three weeks rather than the traditional fortnight to recover from Roland Garros.
But this year’s pandemic calendar has reverted to the old shape, after the French Tennis Federation postponed their marquee event to allow for larger crowds in Paris.
This has been challenging for all the players, and Nadal told reporters after his French Open semi-final exit that “The body after so much struggle usually suffers a slump. Wimbledon this year is in two weeks. It's different from when I was 25 years old. I am 35 and I have to see how I recover in every way.”