WIMBLEDON, England — Rafael Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam champion, has withdrawn from his semi-final match against Nick Kyrgios scheduled for Friday.
“I don’t think I can win two games under these circumstances,” he said. “I cannot serve.”
Nadal made the announcement at a press conference just after 2pm ET in the All England Club’s main media conference room, stating that he was retiring due to a tear in his abdominal muscle.
“I’ve been thinking about the decision all day,” he said. “I think there’s no point in leaving.”
“I’m very sad,” he said.
Nadal, who entered the tournament halfway to a Grand Slam and was worried about his chronically injured foot, said he started experiencing abdominal pain about a week ago. The pain worsened and it became clear he most likely tore a muscle early in his five-set win over Taylor Fritz in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.
In that match, Nadal took a medical time-out in the second set. From the stands, his father and other family members urged him to stop playing rather than risk further injury, but Nadal ignored their pleas and scored one of the most notable comeback wins of a career that has seen many of them.
After the match, Nadal warned that he might not be able to play in the semifinals and that he plans to have a scan done to determine the extent of the injury.
“The decision at the end – all decisions – are the player’s decisions, but at the same time I have to know different opinions and check everything in the right way, right? That’s even more important than winning Wimbledon, that’s health,” he said. Still, few thought that Nadal, who has played through pain for so much of his career, wouldn’t at least try to play the semifinals.
The withdrawal – the first from a Wimbledon semi-final in tennis’ modern era – was particularly disappointing because Nadal’s game had been improving with every game, which he noted on Thursday and after his win over Fritz, despite this being his first tournament on grass in three was years.
“I’m in the semifinals, so I’ve played very well over the past few days, especially yesterday, early in the game, at a very, very high level,” he said.
With Nadal’s withdrawal, Kyrgios gets a pass to his first Grand Slam singles final. Kyrgios, 27, had never reached a singles Grand Slam semifinal during his controversial career.
“Different players, different personalities,” Kyrgios wrote of Nadal in a post on Instagram after the announcement. “@rafaelnadal I hope your recovery is going well and we all hope to see you well soon 🗣🙏🏽 until next time.”
Nadal had won the first two Grand Slams events of the year, the Australian Open and the French Open. The win over Fritz put him just nine wins away from a calendar year Grand Slam, something not achieved by a male player since Rod Laver in 1969.
The withdrawal is the latest blow to a tournament that has had a rocky road since April, when organizers announced they would ban Russian and Belarusian players from participation because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The organizers made the move under heavy pressure from the British government and royal family, who are closely associated with the tournament and did not want Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, to be photographed doing her traditional duty, giving a trophy to a Russian or Belarusian champion present.
No tournaments outside the UK, including the US Open, followed Wimbledon’s lead. The decision also sparked a struggle with the men’s and women’s professional tours, who decided not to award ranking points for wins at Wimbledon and turned the sport’s most prestigious tournament into an exhibition of sorts.
Things got even more tricky on Thursday when Elena Rybakina, who was born and raised in Russia but started representing Kazakhstan four years ago after the tennis federation offered to fund her development, qualified for the women’s final.
On Thursday night, however, everything else seemed to pale in comparison to the disappointment that Nadal would not be able to step onto the pitch for his showdown with Kyrgios and, if prevailed, a potential 60th match against Novak Djokovic.
Nadal said the injury caused discomfort for several days but the pain got worse in game five of the game when he was leading 3-1. Things got even worse two games later when Fritz broke Nadal’s serve to take the lead.
Nadal said he then changed the way he served, slowing and shifting what is usually a violent twisting motion – the torque of his upper body and the power of his legs – to go at around 120mph to serve. During long stretches of the game, Nadal struggled to serve in three figures.
Despite this, he resisted pleas from his family to quit because he wanted to finish what he had started. He defended that decision on Thursday, although it ultimately deprived the tournament of one of its semifinals.
He called it the right decision “because I won the match. I finished the game. I won the game. I did the things I felt every single moment.”
However, his willingness to risk his health shifted Thursday, he said, seeing and feeling the extent of the tear. He argued that winning two more games would be impossible and that trying would only worsen the injury and cause him to miss more games this summer.
“Very difficult circumstances,” he said, pursing his lips with that slight tilt of his head he so often does when delivering unfortunate news.
He said he can’t compete for at least three or four weeks, but he can start hitting from the baseline in just a week and then start serving once he can do it without discomfort. This is important to Nadal because his chronically injured foot often becomes a problem if he doesn’t play for a long time. At some point after that he can start serving provided he can play without pain.
That schedule, he said, will not affect his normal summer schedule, which generally includes hard-court tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati ahead of the start of the US Open in late August.
As of now, Djokovic cannot play the US Open as he refuses to be vaccinated against Covid-19. US policy currently prohibits unvaccinated foreigners from entering the country.
In recent years, Djokovic has been obsessed with ending his career with the most Grand Slam singles titles. He started the year at 20, level with Nadal and Roger Federer.
Nadal then won the first two Grand Slams of the year to move forward in a race he said he cared little about, which was a little difficult to understand given how competitive he is on the court.
“The most important thing, as always, is luck more than any title, even if everyone knows how much effort I put in to be here,” he said.
He also said on Thursday night that he never considered the withdrawal that ends his chance for the calendar year’s Grand Slam, a quest that Djokovic was also obsessed with and was just a game away last year as Nadal entered the second half of the year missed because of his bad foot.
“I never thought about the calendar slam,” he said. “I thought about my daily happiness.”