Injury suggests end is near for Rafael Nadal but Dominic Thiem is primed to lead new era
Rafael Nadal’s Sisyphean curse has struck again.
After a dismal 2015, the Spaniard had looked headed for the peaks once again, putting his name back on the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona trophies, and looking authoritative in his first two matches at Roland Garros, dropping a mere nine games in six sets.
Then, the curse struck back. On Friday, Nadal failed to hold back his tears as he announced his withdrawal from the French Open, a venue where he has won nine titles and holds a 72-2 record across 12 years.
Like the condemned Sisyphus, the mythical king of Ephyra, Nadal had spent the last 17 months rolling that huge boulder of injuries and self-doubts up the hill, but with the peak finally in sight, the boulder, not for the first time, has dragged him back to the base.
This has been a regular happening in Nadal’s career. Not a season has passed without injuries making an intervention to slow him down, but Nadal has always powered his way back to the top.
But can he do it again? This is not the foot-injury that almost brought his career to an end in 2005, even before it had taken off.
It is not the shoulder, ankle or the back either. This is the wrist. And unlike 2014, it is not the right wrist but the left — the one he has used over the years to decimate opponents.
It is an inflamed tendon sheath and not a tear, which would have required a surgery, and Nadal expects to be practising again after a couple of weeks of immobilisation.
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But this injury could potentially be the final straw in his bid to add to the 14 grand slams he already has to his name.
“Hopefully, we can get two more years out of him,” Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, said way back in 2005 and he has given us 11 years already. The end, however, has always been in sight.
“He’s writing cheques that his body can’t cash,” Andre Agassi once said, and Nadal has probably encashed the last of his cheques, at least at grand slams.
The same is probably true of Roger Federer, who has been struggling with injuries and illness this year, and did not even make it to Roland Garros, the first time the 17-time major winner had been absent from a grand slam since August 1999.
A much younger Juan Martin Del Potro has struggled to make a return from his wrist injuries. Nadal will be celebrating his 30th birthday on Friday and Federer will be 35 in just over two months.
So this could finally be the end of an era. Or perhaps, the start of the next.
Novak Djokovic is still around, so is Andy Murray, and late-bloomer Stan Wawrinka remains a tough opponent as well. But the world is looking for the Generation Next to carry on this rich legacy of the Big Five.
Nick Kyrgios, of course, has excited the pundits and his peers, so has Alexander Zverev. But the one leading the race, at this moment, is Austrian Dominic Thiem.
The youngest man in the Top 15 at 22, he is also the winner of three titles in 2016 and the owner of most wins this season (39), behind Djokovic (40).
Of course, Thiem is not the finished article yet and his record at the Masters 1000 and grand slam tournaments is far from convincing.
In Paris this week, he has matched his best performance at majors (2014 US Open) by reaching the fourth round, and has a great chance of reaching the last eight for the first time when he faces Marcel Granollers in their delayed match after Monday’s play was washed out in Paris.
Kyrgios, with two quarter-finals at grand slams and a semi-final at the Miami Masters this year, has done better on the big stage, and Thiem knows he is “missing a really big result, big tournament” and hoping “it’s gonna happen soon”.
Unlike Kyrgios, though, Thiem loves tennis and wants to be like the Big Four.
“Everybody is a little scared of Rafa when he walks on the court,” Thiem told ESPN last week. “It’s like that with the top four guys. That’s my goal, too, to have players a little scared of me.”
And that attitude should see Thiem inch ahead of the rest in what should be an exciting race of the Generation Next, starting with the continuing French Open.
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Published: May 30, 2016 04:00 AM