WIMBLEDON, England — In the end, after a day of contemplation and consideration for what mattered most, health prevailed over the temptations of yet another title.
On Thursday evening, 24 hours after one of the gutsiest and most grueling efforts of his career, Rafael Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam champion, pulled out of his semifinal match against Nick Kyrgios set for Friday.
“I believe I can’t win two matches under these circumstances,” he said. “I can’t serve.”
Nadal made the announcement at a news conference just after 2 p.m. Eastern in the main media conference room at the All England Club, explaining that he was withdrawing because of a tear in his abdominal muscle.
“I was thinking the whole day about the decision,” he said. “I think it doesn’t make sense to go.”
“I am very sad,” he said.
Nadal, who entered the tournament halfway to a Grand Slam and with concerns about his chronically injured foot, said he began to feel soreness in his abdomen roughly one week ago. The pain grew worse, and it became clear that he had most likely torn the muscle early in his five-set win over Taylor Fritz in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
In that match, Nadal took a medical timeout in the second set. From the stands, his father and other members of his family motioned for him to stop playing rather than risk further injury, but Nadal ignored their pleas and pulled off one of the more remarkable 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 semifinal and that he planned to have a scan to determine the extent of the injury.
“The decision at the end — all the decisions — are the player’s decision, but at the same time I need to know different opinions and I need to check everything the proper way, no? That is even something more important than win Wimbledon, that is the health,” he said. Still, few thought that Nadal, who has played through pain for so much of his career, would not at least try to play the semifinal.
The withdrawal — the first from a Wimbledon semifinal in the modern era of tennis — was especially disappointing because Nadal’s game had been improving with each match, something he noted Thursday and after his win over Fritz, despite this being his first tournament on grass in three years.
“I’m in the semifinals, so I am playing very well the last couple of days, especially yesterday, at the beginning of the match, playing at a very, very high level,” he said.
With Nadal’s withdrawal, Kyrgios receives a pass to his first Grand Slam singles final. Kyrgios, 27, had never made a Grand Slam singles semifinal previously during a career filled with controversy.
“Different players, different personalities,” Kyrgios wrote of Nadal in a post on Instagram after the announcement. “@rafaelnadal I hope your recovery goes well and we all hope to see you healthy soon 🗣🙏🏽 till next time.”
The withdrawal is the latest blow for a tournament that has followed a rocky road since April, when organizers announced that they would bar Russian and Belarusian players from competing because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Organizers made the move amid intense pressure from Britain’s government and royal family, which is closely associated with the tournament and did not want Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, photographed carrying out her traditional duty of presenting a trophy to a Russian or Belarusian champion.
No tournaments outside of Britain, including the U.S. Open, followed Wimbledon’s lead. The decision also sparked a battle with the men’s and women’s professional tours, which decided not to award any rankings points for victories at Wimbledon, turning the sport’s most prestigious tournament into something of an exhibition.
The situation grew even more awkward Thursday when Elena Rybakina, who was born and raised in Russia but began representing Kazakhstan four years ago after its tennis federation offered to fund her development, qualified for the women’s final.
Thursday evening, though, all else seemed to pale in comparison with the disappointment that Nadal wouldn’t be able to take the court for his showdown with Kyrgios, and if he had prevailed, a possible 60th match against Novak Djokovic.
Nadal said the injury had caused discomfort for several days but the pain became severe in the fifth game of the match while he was leading 3-1. It got even worse a few games later as Fritz broke Nadal’s serve to pull ahead.
Nadal said he then changed the way he served, slowing and shifting what is normally a violent twisting motion — the torque of his torso and the power of his legs — to serve at roughly 120 miles per hour. During lengthy segments of the match, Nadal struggled to serve at triple digits.
Still, he resisted his family’s pleas for him to quit, wanting to finish what he started. He defended that decision Thursday even though it ultimately deprived the tournament of one of its semifinals.
He called it the right decision “because I won the match. I finished the match. I won the match. I did the things I felt in every single moment.”
However, his willingness to risk his health shifted Thursday, he said, when he saw and felt the extent of the tear. He reasoned that winning two more matches would be impossible and that trying would only make the injury worse and cause him to miss more matches this summer.
“Very tough circumstances,” he said tightening his lips with that slight tilt of his head he so often does when conveying unfortunate news.
He said he would not be able to compete for at least three or four weeks but he would be able to begin hitting from the baseline in as little as a week, then begin serving once he can do so without discomfort. That is important to Nadal, since his chronically injured foot often becomes a problem when he does not play for long periods. He can begin serving sometime after that, assuming he can play without pain.
That timetable, he said, will not interfere with his normal summer schedule, which generally includes hardcourt tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati before the start of the U.S. Open in late August.
As of now, Djokovic will not be able to play the U.S. Open because of his refusal to get vaccinated for Covid-19. U.S. policy currently prohibits unvaccinated foreigners from entering the country.
In recent years, Djokovic has become obsessed with finishing his career with the most Grand Slam singles titles. He began the year tied with Nadal and Roger Federer at 20.
Nadal then won the first two Grand Slams of the year to pull ahead in a race that he said he cared little about, something that was slightly hard to fathom given how competitive he is on the court.
“As always, the most important thing is happiness more than any title, even if everybody knows how much effort I put to be here,” he said.
He also said Thursday evening that he never gave consideration to the withdrawal ending his chance for the calendar year Grand Slam, a quest that Djokovic also has obsessed about and came within one match of pulling off last year when Nadal missed the second half of the year because of his ailing foot.
“Never thought about the calendar slam,” he said. “I thought about my daily happiness.”