- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Even as he rose like a bullet to the top of tennis, there was always an asterisk next to Rafael Nadal's name:
The very thing that drove him to the No. 1 ranking in the world -- his ambition, drive and unnatural intensity -- was also the subversive enemy. The wear and tear those heroic qualities visited on his knees, well, we could only guess at the cumulative effects.
In the past, the only telling sign that his knees were routinely wracked with tendinitis was the loops of tape he sometimes wrapped around them. Now we have a chilling, definitive sign: The pain has finally brought him to his knees just short of a Grand Slam stage.
While Nadal played an exhibition against Stanislas Wawrinka at London's Hurlingham Club on Friday, it was clear his knees were bothering him, affecting his celebrated mobility. Later, at the All England Club, Nadal soberly confirmed that he would not play in next week's Wimbledon tournament.
"I'm just not 100 percent," Nadal said, acknowledging it was one of the most difficult decisions in his career. "I'm better than I was a couple of weeks ago, but I just don't feel ready."
And so, the No. 1-ranked player and the top seed will miss the chance to defend the title he so magnificently won from Roger Federer in the compelling 2008 final.
Nadal is the first men's champion not to attempt a defense of his title since Goran Ivanisevic in 2002, and only the second in 35 years.
When Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Tennis Association's general manager of elite tennis, heard the news, he sounded down.
"It's a major, major bummer," McEnroe said. "I was really optimistic that he was going to play. Obviously, this is much more serious than any of us thought.
"A lot of people were looking to another emotional final with Roger Federer."
Nadal's knees seemed to be a factor when he lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open, which ended his quest to win five straight titles. He then withdrew from the Wimbledon warm-up at Queen's Club and underwent tests in Spain.
Still, his intent to play two exhibition matches late this week seemed to suggest he would play at Wimbledon. In the end, just two weeks past his 23rd birthday, the mileage he has accumulated in recent years proved too much.
Nadal averaged nearly 85 matches over the past four years, and has played 49 so far in 2009 -- the second-highest number on the ATP World Tour, behind Novak Djokovic's 56.
"I think I reached the limit right now," he said. "I need to reset to come back stronger. It's not chronic. I can recover for sure."
According to McEnroe, this may change the way Nadal approaches the game on a daily basis -- at least, he argued, it should.
"I think Rafa has to come to terms with the fact that spending four, five hours a day on the court has to be a thing of the past," said McEnroe, an ESPN analyst. "Yes, he's the king of the world, physically, but his long-term longevity is at risk. He's having a tough time physically coming to terms with that.
"It's the same thing [Jim] Courier had to learn. If you take care of your business, you can get everything done that needs doing in an hour and 45 minutes to two hours. It's an adjustment Rafa has to make."
Suddenly, the top half of the men's draw is minus its leading light.
Juan Martin del Potro, the No. 5 seed, will move from the bottom half of the draw and take Nadal's spot on the top line. No. 17 seed James Blake fills in for Del Potro, and Nicolas Kiefer becomes the No. 32 seed.
"Going in, even with Nadal in the tournament, I thought a healthy Federer was the favorite," McEnroe said. "Certainly, this opens up the door for [Andy] Murray and [Andy] Roddick. Now, you're looking at the possibility of a Murray-Roddick semifinal."
And No. 2 seed Federer will likely float through his quarter -- the most dangerous players there are No. 7 seed Fernando Verdasco and No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- and the fourth-seeded Djokovic, presumably, would await in the semifinals.
After a crushing five-set defeat at the hands of Nadal in the Australian Open, it has been an abundant late spring for Federer. First, Soderling stunned Nadal at Roland Garros, then Federer took down Soderling to win his first French Open title.
Now, even before the event begins, the man who has beaten him in 13 of 20 matches -- including their last three Grand Slam finals appearances -- is gone. A win by Federer at Wimbledon would give him his coveted 15th major title, breaking the record he shares with Pete Sampras.
With the news that Nadal won't play, that possibility now seems closer to a likelihood.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.