The Desert Battle That Almost Was – Nadal Withdraws from Saturday’s Semifinal

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At this stage of their careers, will Rafa and Roger ever meet again? (Photo by Brent Bishop)

Bill Simons and Douglas Hochmuth

Indian Wells

They say tennis is like boxing. It’s one-on-one, you-versus-me. And you have to have great foot speed, hand-eye agility, stamina and a knock-out punch. But as much as anything, if a boxer or a tennis player withdraws, there is no competition – it’s all over. Even golf does not have the one-on-one nature of tennis. If Tiger Woods withdraws from a golf tournament, all the other players keep on swing. But in tennis, defaults and withdrawals have long been part of the game’s fabric. No open era Grand Slam final has ended with a withdrawal, though Justine Henin retired when Amelie Mauresmo was just fourteen points short of winning the 2006 Australian Open.

The Miami Open has a long list of withdrawals and injuries, including Thomas Muster and Goran Ivanisevic. One year, when Pete Sampras was hobbled, a generous Andre Agassi agreed to extend the start time of the final by 45 minutes so Pete could get ready for the battle. Here in Indian Wells, there have been many withdrawals. My favorite came in 2008 when Tommy Haas pulled out of his match against Federer. For years I’d been hoping to get an interview with the hard-to-nail-down Roger, but when Haas withdrew I got a call that the interview was on, and soon I was chatting with the mighty Swiss. A few years ago, Federer was scheduled to play against Nick Kyrgios at 12:00 pm. I’d written a long intro to what promised to be a dusty desert battle at high noon. But Kyrgios withdrew and a tasty clash of the most gifted players of the last few generations had to wait for another day.

This year, fans were disappointed when Serena quit mid-way through her match against Garbine Muguruza due to a viral illness. And in the quarters, Gael Monfils, who has long been subject to injuries, pulled out with a left Achilles issue. Fans were left to watch Dominic Thiem come out and go through a brief impromptu practice session.

Today, what promised to be a renewal the greatest men’s rivalry in history, Nadal vs Federer, was short-circuited due to the Mallorcan’s right knee injury. It would have been the 39th meeting between the two. But Nadal, who’s been combating injuries for far too many seasons, decided it was foolhardy to even go on court. Nadal explained, “I felt that my knee was not enough good to compete at the level that I need to compete…Today is a sad moment for me. I try to be always positive and grateful for all the things that tennis give to me and life give to me. I feel very fortunate.” As disappointing as this was to the crowd of over 16,000 and a rare national network TV audience, it still wasn’t the most impactful withdrawal in Indian Wells history.

Venus Williams’ exit from her 2001 semifinal match against Serena, due to a knee injury, kick-started a string of unintended consequences which were not resolved for 15 years. Following Venus’ pull-out in the semis, the crowd took their anger out on 19-year-old Serena and of course, we know the sisters subsequently boycotted the event for years. In its way, season after season, the move changed the landscape of the tournament.

Nadal’s withdrawal today won’t have that much impact. Still, considering where they are in their careers, fans wonder just how many more times these two masters will meet again..

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