LONDON // Still only 23 and one of the most powerful physical specimens in the history of tennis, Rafael Nadal is convinced he can make considerable improvements to his already impressive haul of six grand slam titles. It would be foolish not to take those claims seriously.
Nevertheless, searching questions must now be asked about the long-term future of the world No 1 in the wake of a distressing month for the Spaniard. Alarm bells started ringing in Madrid where he was pushed to the limit by Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of a Masters tournament he was expected to win routinely and then given the knockout punch by a sympathetic Roger Federer in the ensuing final.
Nadal dismissed that setback as a consequence of an over-demanding clay court schedule but he could not hide the fact he had a genuine fitness problem when the unheralded Swede Robin Soderling ended his sparkling four-year reign as French Open champion. A series of defiant messages suggested that a combination of a good rest and intensive treatment would put him back in prime shape for his red letter day tomorrow - the opening of the Wimbledon Championships by the men's singles champion - but, alas, he cannot afford to put his dodgy knees at risk to keep such an important appointment.
Nadal described his withdrawal decision because of tendinitis in both joints as one of the toughest of his still-short career and disclosed that he tried everything to avoid pulling out of a tournament he won so thrillingly a year ago in one of the best finals ever against Federer. The conclusion from Nadal and his team of advisers is that he has the capabilities to retain his status as the world's top player for "many years to come" and that to abandon one realistic grand slam objective would eventually create opportunities to win several more.
The Spaniard has never hidden his irritation in recent times whenever it is suggested that he is in danger of "burn out" because of his punishing style of play. "They were saying this three years ago that I couldn't last," he said. "And after four years I am better than ever. "I am tired of people telling me I can't go on playing like this. I want to be able to play on for many, many years." Nadal went through a similar thought process at the end of last year when agonising decisions to miss the season-ending Masters Cup and his country's Davis Cup final victory over Argentina were handsomely compensated for by a first Australian Open triumph.
He will be hoping a similar scenario unfolds in New York in September when his patience and caution will be rewarded with a maiden US Open title and anybody who cares about the future of the sport will be supporting him on his rehabilitation mission. His army of fans at Wimbledon will be devastated by his absence - it is only the fourth occasion when the men's champion has not defended the title - and his withdrawal takes much of the gloss from a tournament which many pundits were expecting to conclude with another Nadal-Federer showdown.
Federer, whose only defeats in grand slam finals have been at the hands of Nadal, is now an even warmer favourite to lift the All England Club's golden Challenge Cup for a sixth time and the Swiss fittingly assumes the honour of raising the curtain on the 2009 Championships tomorrow afternoon. The hopes of the home nation of a first champion since 1936 are also considerably improved with world No 3 Andy Murray now seeded to meet the Swiss in the final.
Murray, winner of the Queen's Club tournament a year ago, was initially scheduled to face his nemesis Nadal in the semi- finals. Now Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro, the world No 5, occupies that place in the revised draw. firstname.lastname@example.org