WIMBLEDON: It was impossible not to think ahead, to what awaits Rafael Nadal, while watching him sigh as he discussed how "very sad" he was about pulling out of the Wimbledon semifinals because of a torn abdominal muscle.
It was impossible not to think back to just a month ago, when Nadal at 36 became the oldest champion in French Open history, then expressed doubt about whether he would even show up at the All England Club because of chronic pain in his left foot that required nerve-numbing injections just so he could play in Paris.
And it was impossible not to think back, to a year ago at Centre Court, when Roger Federer exited after a loss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, clearly compromised by a balky right knee that would soon require a third surgery in a span of about 18 months. Federer, who turns 41 in a month, has not played a match since.
These two exceptional athletes, forever linked as rivals and greats of the game, might be at different stages of nearing the ends of their careers, but one can't help but wonder whether Nadal's recent difficulty staying healthy — he also missed time this season with a rib injury, and the second half of last season because of his foot — could affect how much he is willing to keep pushing his body. At some point, both will be gone from the sport.
As will, at some point, the other member of the so-called Big Three, Novak Djokovic, who reached his men's-record 32nd Grand Slam title match by beating Cam Norrie 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 on Friday in what became the lone men's semifinal.
"I don't think anyone's able to fill those shoes, to be honest with you," said Nick Kyrgios, the player who benefited from Nadal's withdrawal and advanced to his first Grand Slam final.
"We'll never see a competitor like Rafa again. You'll never see someone wield a racquet like Roger, so effortlessly. You'll never probably see anyone who just wins and just plays the game just so good as ....Djokovic."
Nadal owns a men's-record 22 Grand Slam titles, two ahead of Djokovic, who is 35, and Federer. "It's going to be a sad day," Kyrgios said, "when they go."
Nadal was asked whether he made the right choice by continuing to play against Taylor Fritz in the quarterfinals Wednesday, hanging in there for five full sets across nearly 4 1/2 hours, despite feeling so much pain from early in the first set. He said a few noteworthy things in response.
He's sure it made sense to keep playing, because he could — actually prove the possibility, after all, — and, of course, he won. He's not someone who likes to quit playing once a match begins (he's done it three times in 351 Grand Slam contests, nine times in 1,275 over his full career). He's not someone who questions past choices, although he will try to learn from his mistakes.
He's proud he finished that match, but once he had more information Thursday about the extent of the injury, he made what he called a "decision thinking about your health and your future."
Nadal hopes he can return to practising groundstrokes in about a week; serving will need to wait, but he still posited that the abdominal problem might sideline him for only about a month.
He thinks he can stick to a schedule that includes the US Open, the year's last Grand Slam tournament, which starts on Aug 29. "As I always said, for me the most important thing is happiness, more than any title, even if everybody knows how much effort I put to be here," Nadal said.
"But I can't risk that match and stay two, three months outside of competition, because that's going to be a tough thing for me."
He said he was not concerned at all with trying to pursue a calendar-year Grand Slam — going 4 for 4 at the sport's four major championships — even though he captured the first two legs at the Australian Open and French Open for the first time in 2022.
Instead, he insisted: "I thought about my daily happiness and my daily work." The question for him, and the rest of us, is how long he can stay healthy enough to happily work and compete.