Wednesday August 15th, 2012

Rafael Nadal hasn't played since a second-round loss at Wimbledon. (EPA /Landov)

MASON, Ohio -- Rafael Nadal withdrew from the U.S. Open on Wednesday because of a knee injury that has plagued him since Wimbledon. Some thoughts on the impact of the 2010 champion's announcement:

Not a shocker: If you took the time to read the tennis tea leaves, Nadal's decision doesn't come as a surprise. Red flags were raised last week when Nadal withdrew from the final major hard-court warm-up tournament, the Western & Southern Open here, and there were indications that he wasn't positive about his rehabilitation efforts. Nadal had not gone into a Slam cold (i.e., without a lead-up tournament) since 2003. So withdrawing from the Olympics and last week's Rogers Cup in Toronto was one thing, but skipping Cincinnati was another.

"You felt like if he wasn't able to come to at least here -- a lot of guys took Toronto off -- maybe he was in trouble," Mardy Fish said after beating Feliciano Lopez at the Western & Southern Open on Wednesday. "So it's a shame. You know, he made the [U.S. Open] final last year and he's the champion the year before that. He'll be missed."

Let's hold off on the career obituaries: Of course, anytime Nadal's knees flare up, the questions about his longevity are bound to surface. On the one hand, the speculation is understandable. Nadal plays a physically brutal style that grinds down both his opponents and his own body. But on the other hand, it's easy to forget that Nadal is still only 26, with a history of rebounding from injury.

The last time Nadal took an extended leave to deal with his knee injuries was 2009, when he missed Wimbledon as the defending champion after being upset by Robin Soderling at the French Open. Nadal subsequently retired with a knee injury at the Australian Open early the following year, but he bounced back to go undefeated on clay and sweep the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Yes, he is a few years older now and the propensity for injury is cause for concern, but his resiliency can't be overlooked.

"Everybody knows Rafa," Juan Martin Del Potro said at the Western & Southern Open. "He's a big fighter. He will be with us very, very soon, and could be dangerous for us. ... He's still very, very young."

The U.S. Open loses one of its star attractions ...: After a record audience tuned in to watch the tennis competition at the Olympics, the U.S. Open is primed to take advantage of a surge in interest. Now it will have to do so without one of the sport's biggest stars.

"The fact is that tennis is going to lose a little bit because of Rafa not being there and playing, because he's somebody that has made a history of this sport," Novak Djokovic said. "We all know how good he is and how popular he is."

Sloane Stephens, ever the teenager, agreed with Djokovic -- though for more selfish reasons.

"I love Rafa so I love seeing him at tournaments," the 19-year-old Stephens said. "I get star-struck when I see him. I'm like, Oh, my God, I wish I could touch him. It will be sad with him not there, obviously. I mean, he's such an amazing player. I just kind of I like seeing him practice. I like eating my lunch and watching him. I'm kind of bummed he won't be there." • But it will be fine: Obviously, everyone wants a full field for the final Slam of the season. But Nadal's absence won't leave as big of a hole as it might at other times. Given Andy Murray's recent results at Wimbledon and the Olympics, along with the fact that Del Potro is in good form and feeling confident after his bronze-medal performance in London, the field still has strong contenders beyond Federer and Djokovic. Nadal would have added some buzz, but the U.S. Open won't lack for exciting storylines without him.

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