Rafael Nadal’s unceremonious exit from the US Open means that there will be a first-time Grand Slam champion this weekend. It also marks another missed opportunity for the Spaniard, who has won 22 major tournaments but is now unsure when he will return following his 6-4 4-6 6-4 6-3 defeat to Frances Tiafoe in round four.
One man who would have been left with a wry smile on his face following Nadal’s surprise exit is the absent Novak Djokovic. The Serbian is intent on becoming the most successful male tennis player of all time and still sits just one behind Nadal on 21 major trophies after he was unable to enter the US due to his Covid vaccination status.
It’s the same reason he missed the Australian Open in January amid much controversy, and it's fair to assume that he would have already equalled or surpassed Nadal’s tally had he played at those two events given the imperious form he has been in over the last two years.
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These two Grand Slam absences magnify the relentless nature of the great Serbian. Throughout his entire career, which began in 2005, he has missed just three Grand Slam events. Two of those are through his own personal choice in not getting the vaccine.
His bionic body has seemingly avoided any major injuries and he has managed to peak at the right time, even as he has reached his mid-thirties. It’s a remarkable achievement worthy of praise in itself, but this is where the additional frustration comes in for Nadal. While Djokovic has only missed three Grand Slams, Nadal has been absent from 11 since he made his debut at Wimbledon in 2003.
Injuries have consistently troubled him and forced him to miss events throughout the years, while in 2021 he ended his season early, missing Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open due to a foot issue. He’s now 36 and is approaching two decades at the top of the sport, so expecting his body to feel the effects of that is only natural.
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His powerful game lends itself to injury more than Djokovic’s does, but how does this injury record compare to the other big guns?
Andy Murray missed four Grand Slams between his debut at Wimbledon in 2005 and the end of 2017, but his well-known injury issues since then have seen him miss 14 in total. The fact that Nadal isn’t too far off that total comes as a real surprise.
Roger Federer's remarkable level of consistency saw him appear at every major between 1999 and 2015, but he has now missed 12 Grand Slams, including all four in 2022. That makes this year’s US Open the first Grand Slam since 2003 in which none of the big three or Serena Williams will feature in the quarter-finals.
Djokovic is likely to suffer from more injury issues as he reaches his late thirties, but perhaps his career could even be extended by these forced break periods and absences he is choosing to take. Unless the rules change, he will miss the Australian Open again in January, before returning to try to win the French Open for the third time in his career.
Given the other contenders in the draw, this US Open was a major missed opportunity for Nadal. But it is the Grand Slams he has missed through injury that will cost him that top spot when he calls it a day. For Djokovic, the same relentless pressure and consistency he shows on the court has dragged him into major tournaments at peak fitness. He’ll likely go down as the most successful of all time, but the debate as to whether he is the greatest will continue to rumble on.
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