Rafael Nadal pulled out of Cincinnati, citing knee issues. (Getty Images)
When Rafael Nadal announced his withdrawal from the Olympics due to his ailing knees, there was consternation, but it was understandable. As much as Nadal would have loved to go to the Olympics -- he was the original flag-bearer for Spain -- given the grueling 2012 tennis schedule and the need to be fully fit for the U.S. hardcourt season, the Nadal camp wasn't taking any chances with his tender knees. But when he announced he was out of the Toronto Masters, it was time to dust off the red flags and slowly roll them out. By that time Nadal had over a month's rest, yet still wasn't fit enough to play. There was still hope that the knees were getting better and Nadal was simply managing his schedule. After all, given his carer match record, the ATP's rules allowed Nadal to skip one Masters event without receiving a point penalty.
Now it's serious. Nadal announced Thursday that he was withdrawing from the last major tuneup event before the U.S. Open, next week's Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, another mandatory Masters 1000. That means it's highly likely Nadal will head into the U.S. Open, where he was a finalist in 2011, without any hard court preparation. In fact, his last match was his five-set upset loss to Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon.
Of course this assumes that Nadal will play the U.S. Open at all. Given his history, things don't look good. The last time Nadal did not play a lead-up event prior to a major, he withdrew. That would be in 2009 after he suffered a shock loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of Roland Garros and was forced to withdraw from Wimbledon due to, you guessed it, his knees. Sound familiar? In fact, since 2005 Nadal has never gone into a Slam cold. Without Cincinnati, Nadal's only option for a lead-up is the small ATP 250 in Winston-Salem. That tournament takes place the week before the U.S. Open and still has two wildcards at its disposal.
So will Rafa buck the trend and head into New York on fresh knees without any competitive-level preparation? Or will history repeat itself, with Rafa opting out of the last major of the year and slowly shutting down his season. Given Rafa's love of patterns, habits, and consistency, I'd back the latter scenario.