Players no longer are required to bow before the Royal Box. Since 2007 the women and men have been paid equal prize money. A retractable roof can now cover the venerable Centre Court. And when play at Wimbledon began on Monday, still another longstanding tradition fell. Historically, the defending men's champion christens play the following year; yet Roger Federer, the runner-up from 2008, inaugurated the proceedings in 2009. Why? Because Rafael Nadal, last year's winner, was MIA, convalescing from tendinitis in both knees. "I think I reached the limit right now," Nadal said last Friday. "I need to rest to come back stronger."
Injuries have become as commonplace in tennis as busted strings and questionable line calls, but Nadal's case is particularly troublesome. Ever since Nadal first bolted bull-like across the tennis firmament in 2005 at age 19, the knock on his game was this: While his violent, relentless style was fun to watch—and devastatingly effective—it was physically unsustainable. One tennis medical official notes that after matches Nadal's shoes often resemble bald tires. "Why," the trainer asks, "would you expect his joints and muscles to be any different?" Because of the immense strain he puts on his body, Nadal's results invariably taper off by late summer; it's no coincidence that at the U.S. Open, the fourth major on the calendar, Nadal has never so much as reached the finals. And this exacts a mental price as well. "One of the big problems," says Nadal, "is that when I am playing, I'm thinking more about the knees than about the game."
Nadal has defended his rigorous style, asserting that if he could play elegant, lithe tennis, he would. "I have to play the way that's best for me," he said last year. Fair point. Still, if Nadal is resigned to such a punishing approach, he may want to rethink his schedule. In the six weeks before the French Open, Nadal played 18 matches; Federer played 11. Is it any wonder that Nadal, visibly fatigued, bowed out in the fourth round, while Federer still looked fresh after seven matches? And, as if singles weren't enough, Nadal has played in nine doubles matches in 2009.
If Nadal's withdrawal was met with ambivalence in England, it's because Andy Murray, making a credible bid to become the first homegrown Wimbledon champion since 1936, is now the highest seed in the top half of the draw. Nadal's withdrawal also reflects well on the 27-year-old Federer, a fitness freak who has never—knock on graphite—suffered a prolonged injury in his entire career.