Rafael Nadal ‘very sad’ for Novak Djokovic but steeled for tilt at fifth US Open title and 23rd slam | Sport

New title favourites Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal have expressed their sadness and disappointment at Novak Djokovic’s absence from the US Open. But Nadal says the show will always go on with or without the sport’s biggest stars.

Djokovic is sitting out his second grand slam of the season because of his ongoing refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19. His decision not to follow the example of more than 95 per cent of his peers on tour leaves the Serb trailing Nadal, with 22 majors, by one grand slam crown in the men’s all-time title race.

Fellow grand slam glutton Roger Federer, with 20 titles to his name, is also missing the 2022 Open. However the Swiss legend’s recovery from another round of knee surgery has him on track for a comeback representing Team Europe at the Laver Cup exhibition event on September 23.

Nadal’s steely focus though is on winning a fifth US Open title. While politely offering his condolences for Djovokic’s latest lost opportunity, the Spaniard reminded the reigning Wimbledon champion he wasn’t the only player to ever miss a big tournament.

“I repeat what I said plenty of times: the sport in some ways is bigger than any player,” Nadal said. “I missed a lot of important events in my tennis career because of injuries, without a doubt. Last year I was not here. Two years ago I was not here. The tournament continues.”

Nadal is back in the Big Apple for the first time in three years, having chosen not to travel in 2020 and then missing the 2021 tournament with a foot problem. At the age of 36, Nadal knows his own opportunities to add to his grand slam tally are dwindling but he remains philisophical.

“The world of tennis (will) keep going, even if it is not good news for everyone,” Nadal shrugged. “The world continues and the tennis will continue after me, after Novak, after Roger.

“Without a doubt, Novak is one of the most important players of the last 20 years, the history of our sport. In a personal way I feel sorry for him that he’s not able to travel here. But on the other hand … (it’s his choice).”

Djokovic only withdrew hours before Thursday’s draw in New York, after finally giving up hope the US Government would relax restrictions in time.

“From my personal perspective, it’s very sad news,” Nadal said. “It’s always a shame when the best players of the world are not able to play a tournament because of injuries or because of different reasons.

“It’s tough for the fans, tough for the tournament. In my opinion, tough for the players, too, because we want to have the best field possible.”

Nadal’s first-round match is on Tuesday with Australian wildcard Rinky Hijikata. The Spaniard is yet to lose a best-of-five sets match this season but is short on match practice having only competed once since being forced out of Wimbledon with an abdominal tear, an injury which forced him to forfeit a semi-final with Nick Kyrgios.

“It’s a tough injury because it’s dangerous, it’s risky. When you have a scar, it’s a place that you put in a lot of effort when you are serving. You need to find flexibility again,” Nadal explained. “I am doing things the best way that I can. I hope to be ready for the action. That’s the only thing that I can say. With the tools that I have today, I hope to be competitive enough to give myself a chance.”

Nadal could be forgiven for having his mind elsewhere. Spanish media reported last week that his wife Maria Francisca Perello, had been admitted to hospital 31 weeks into her pregnancy for the couple’s first child and was under observation awaiting possible surgery.

Instead, with typical humility, he sent best wishes to his old friend and rival Federer, now 41, whom he will line up with for Bjorn Borg’s Team Europe at the fifth edition of the teams’ event against the John McEnroe-captained Team World at the O2 Arena.

“Super excited to see Roger again on court, of course,” Nadal said. “I hope he’s healthy enough to make that happen. Has been a long period of time without Roger on court so I really hope that he can manage to be back.

“The most important thing at this stage of his career is the health and the happiness, no?” Nadal grinned. “If he’s healthy enough and happy enough to be back to the tennis tour, (it) will be amazing. If not, we just can say thanks to him for everything that he achieved. (But) I am confident that we will keep having Roger for a while.”

Meanwhile, Medvedev, who denied Djokovic a calendar-year grand slam with a straight sets 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory in last year’s final, said he too wished the Serb was in New York.

“The rivalry against Rafa is really heating up. Twenty-two, 21 – a joke of a number,” the Russian joked. “It’s a pity [Djokovic] is not here. It would be a great story for tennis. But it’s not us tennis players, it’s American government rules. Completely understandable also.”

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