Professional tennis is in many ways a game of hierarchies and hegemonies, wherein the best remain at the top and generally throttle the lesser ranked competition on every front. Some seasons bear testimony to unbroken stretches of dominance by the Top Ten players, who vie amongst themselves in the semifinals and finals of nearly every major tournament and championship. Occasionally, however, an upset or an unexpected injury will shatter the status quo and send the establishment reeling.
In many ways, 2014 has been a season full of such upsets and unprecedented challengers. The Australian Open was the first major championship of the year to bear testimony to such an upset, with Stan Wawrinka’s victory over former champion Rafael Nadal in the final, and his brutal defeat of defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
The French Open quarterfinals played host to a variety of new and upcoming contenders, as did the grass courts of Wimbledon. The enthralled audiences present at the Championships witnessed the defeat of defending champion Andy Murray to Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and the unexpected resurgence of finalist and seven-time champion Roger Federer. Other pundits marveled at Rafael Nadal’s defeat at the hands of the 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios of Australia in the fourth round.
A new development
Now, heading into the start of the 2014 US Open Series, yet another shock has rocked the tennis establishment. On July 30, Rafael Nadal announced via his official Twitter account that due to a wrist injury sustained during hard court practice, he would not be participating in the two major Masters 1000 events that precede the US Open, the Rogers Cup in Toronto and the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
Injuries occur often in tennis. Last year, Andy Murray largely disappeared from the tennis scene to focus on recovering from back surgery. Like Nadal, Argentina’s Juan Martín Del Potro has been out of commission this season with a right wrist injury of his own, which has prohibited his participation in two of the three Grand Slams this season.
Nadal has suffered from a number of injuries in the past. His 2012 and early 2013 seasons were marred by poor performances caused by damage to his knees, which required time away from the Tour. Though he effortlessly rebounded in 2013, winning 10 titles and two Grand Slams, Nadal suffered a back injury during the 2014 Australian Open.
Another injury could not come at a more unfortunate time for the current World No. 2. As defending champion in both Toronto (formerly Montreal) and Cincinnati, Nadal will be unable to defend his points, affording Djokovic an ample opportunity to pull away from Nadal even more in the rankings. This will allow the Serbian to further cement his hold over the World No. 1 ranking, perhaps allowing the Serbian to end the year as No. 1.
A shift in the status quo
With Nadal out of the picture in the two major “warm-up” events of the US Open Series, the stage will be set for a number of possible contenders. Sitting comfortably at the World No. 3 spot is the Maestro himself, Roger Federer. Fresh off a brilliant finals appearance at Wimbledon against Djokovic, Federer has shown himself to once again be a force on the Tour, negating the talk of retirement thrown around by analysts after his poor 2013 season. Federer, who won the US Open for a record five consecutive years from 2003-2007, has always performed well on hard courts and will be a major contender in Canada and Ohio.
Beneath him at World No. 4 is Federer’s fellow countryman Stan Wawrinka. Winning his first major on the hard courts of the Australian Open this year, Wawrinka has shown an aptitude for the surface, having stunned the crowds at Flushing Meadows in an epic five-setter against Djokovic in the 2013 US Open. 2014 has been good to the 29-year-old, providing him with a Grand Slam and a Masters 1000 title. Wawrinka will doubtless be looking to make his presence felt in this year’s US Open Series.
Nadal and the US Open
Nadal’s statement released to the general public mentioned that the Spaniard will likely be prepared to compete in the US Open, defending his 2013 victory there. However, though optimism is key to success in a sport like tennis, the realism of such a claim is debatable.
Wrist injuries are the kiss of death in the sport of tennis. As one of the primary functions required to move a tennis racquet, the wrist is key to adding topspin, which is Nadal’s weapon of choice against his opponents. Studies measuring the speed of topspin-assisted shots by players like Federer, Agassi, Sampras, and Nadal have shown that Nadal hits with much greater topspin than most players on the Tour. Federer generally hits shots that rotate at speeds of 2500 rpm, while Nadal hits at averages of 3500 rpm, peaking at 5000 rpm.
Even if Nadal is physically prepared to play, it is unlikely that he will be able to replicate the unbridled success he enjoyed in his 2013 season. His victories over Djokovic in the Rogers Cup semifinals and the US Open final were almost effortless, as Nadal was suffering no injuries at the time. His 2014 season has been marred by a few injuries thus far, and this latest occurrence will not help his bid to hoist the trophy in Flushing Meadows.
Though Nadal may force his way into the quarters or semis of this year’s US Open, it is unlikely that he will be able to contend for the trophy. He should focus on recuperating from this injury to be best prepared to fight through the post-US Open hard court season on the road to the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Andrew Eissen, editor of Three for Ten Sports, serves as chief tennis analyst.