After his four-hour, 23-minute, third-round match against Karen Khachinov, Rafael Nadal was asked if such a prolonged and difficult match could be a good thing going forward.

Ominously, Nadal said yes, but with one caveat: "If the body holds up."

It didn't.

Nadal was forced to retire after the second set of his US Open semifinal on Friday against Juan Martín del Potro, another oft-injured star. The knee tendinitis that has plagued Nadal, off and on for years, again crippled the top-seeded Spaniard. 

Nadal is 45-4 on the year. Of those four losses, two were retirements at majors. 

Prior to 2018, Nadal had frequently missed Grand Slams with injuries, but he had never retired from a match in a major. At the Australian Open quarterfinal in January he also retired, with a right-hip injury. 

Rafael Nadal has been a protagonist in some of the greatest, most grueling and indelible matches of the past 15 years. Several of his five-set, five-hour duels are classics in the tennis canon. The 2008 Wimbledon final with Roger Federer. The 2009 semifinal against Fernando Verdasco at the Australian. The 2012 Aussie final with Novak Djokovic (at 5 hours, 53 minutes, the longest Slam final in history). This summer’s back-to-back, multiday classics at Wimbledon against del Potro and Djokovic. And only days ago in Flushing, Nadal’s quarterfinal with Dominic Thiem.

September 07, 2018 - Rafael Nadal speaks during a press conference at the 2018 US Open. (USTA/Mike Lawrence)
Photo by:  (USTA/Mike Lawrence)

It’s probably no coincidence that Nadal has been one of the most repeatedly injured top male players, missing seven Slams in his career. The Mallorcan was also forced to withdraw from the 2016 French Open with a wrist injury.

“It’s not about losing,” said Nadal, after his retirement against del Potro. “It’s about not having the chance to fight for it.”

“Lot of people in this room, including myself, never will think that at the age of 32 I will be here fighting for titles, fighting for the first positions of the rankings,” Nadal said. “All my career, everybody say that because of my style, I will have a short career. I am still here.”

“I am still here because I love what I am doing. I still have the passion for the game. I am going to keep fighting and working hard to keep having chances to compete at the highest level. So that's all.”

It’s a torturous hypothetical to wonder how many Slams Nadal might have collected had he had only half, or one-third of the sidelining injuries he has had.

 

Yet Nadal’s Uncle Toni, his life-long coach, said earlier this year that his nephew "many times told me that he would have liked to win less in exchange for having less pain."

"It's part of the game," Nadal rationalized. “I can't and will not complain.” But Nadal knows the toll tennis has taken on his body. 

Perhaps this final Slam of the year was doomed from the outset for Nadal. In a prophetic opening match against his compatriot David Ferrer, also one of the game's fiercest competitors, Ferrer was forced to retire for first time ever in a Slam.

At the close of his press conference on Friday night, after the last question in English, Rafa sat alone at the desk, quietly crushed, staring at the microphone.

His eyes began to glisten with tears. 

It might have been the only time we've seen Nadal look defeated.