Last year, Rafael Nadal was the undisputed king of the U.S. Open Series, sweeping the Masters Series events in Montreal and Cincinnati and carrying that momentum into the U.S. Open, where he won his 13th major.
This year, someone else will get a chance to shine.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Nadal had injured himself in practice and is going to miss at least two or three weeks of play. That takes him out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, and it certainly puts his participation in the U.S. Open in doubt.
Per a statement from the Cincy Tennis website, Nadal's injury was to his wrist:
'Unfortunately I injured my right wrist yesterday during practice and after the tests I have undergone today in Spain, including an MRI, and checking with my doctors, I will have to stay out of competition for at least 2-3 weeks. I am sorry and wish the best to the tournament and thank all of the fans for their support,' said Nadal. 'I’m extremely disappointed that I am unable to defend my titles and compete in Toronto and Cincinnati this year. I was looking forward to coming and playing again after my great results last year.'
This is a big blow for the world No. 2, who was looking to rebound from his surprising fourth-round loss to 19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon and challenge Novak Djokovic for the year-end No. 1.
It also leaves a definitive air of uncertainty around the U.S. Open Series.
While Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray—all former U.S. Open and U.S. Open Series champions—will all be looking to add to their haul of victories, there are other players that could take advantage of having one less top guy in the draw.
It's possible that for the first time since 2006 (Andy Roddick, Cincinnati) a player outside of the Big Four will win a Masters 1000 event during the U.S. Open Series.
Things in the ATP have been a bit unpredictable this year. After Stanislas Wawrinka broke up the status quo by winning the Australian Open in January, there has been a sense of belief in the ATP that has been missing over most of the last decade.
Even though Nadal won the French Open and Djokovic won Wimbledon, there has been legitimate traction made by younger players.
At Wimbledon, 23-year-olds Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic broke through to make their maiden semifinal. Both have had great seasons in 2014; Dimitrov is 35-10 with three titles and a career-high No. 9 ranking, and earlier in July Raonic climbed all the way to No. 6 in the world. Twenty-four-year-old Kei Nishikori, the pride of Japan, has also had a great year, winning two titles and breaking into the Top 10 briefly. All three of these guys are seen as the best near-future prospects for the ATP and could benefit from Nadal's absence.
But the next generation isn't alone. Other players, such as John Isner, who lost to Nadal in the Cincinnati final last year, No. 5 Tomas Berdych and, of course, Australian Open winner Wawrinka, should see this as an opportunity as well.
Nadal is currently slated to be back in time for the U.S. Open, where he would be one of the favorites even with injury concerns and a lack of match play. But, as Chris Chase of USA Today's For The Win points out, it will be a tough task for the Spaniard to defend his U.S. Open crown.
[W]ith a rejuvenated Novak Djokovic, an energized Roger Federer, a motivated Andy Murray and a crop of youngsters intent on breaking the Big Four’s hold, the odds would be stacked against him at the Open. But remember, Nadal has defied the skeptics before in coming back from injury, most notably in 2013 when he put together one of his greatest seasons after missing almost seven months recovering from a knee ailment.
While Chase gives good reasons why Djokovic, Federer and Murray should be feared this summer, the truth is that none of them have been unbeatable this season. Djokovic has shown frequent vulnerability, Federer is still dealing with the aging process and Murray has yet to recapture his pre-back surgery consistency.
Therefore, with Nadal on the sidelines for a few weeks, it feels like the door is open for a fresh face to win one of the three biggest tournaments of the summer.
While the ATP World Tour is much bigger than any one player—even when that player is a 14-time major champion—there's no doubt that the Spaniard will be sorely missed. But the most important thing is that Nadal takes the proper time to recover from his injury so that he doesn't jeopardize his health further.
So as he sits on the sidelines, the tennis will go on. Djokovic will try and extend his lead at No. 1, Federer will try and win his first Masters 1000 title in two years and Murray will try and get his season back on track. Everyone else on tour will try to stop them.