NEW YORK -- I miss Rafa. Please do not try to console me. Just allow me time and space and understanding.
It's not like I'm sitting on the sofa eating potato chips and watching TV and wishing it's Rafa every time the phone vibrates. For one thing, Rafa never texts or calls me anyway. I don't know why.
It's just that by now in this ravishing tennis era, a Grand Slam tournament without Rafael Nadal feels like we've opened up a big can of bereft, as if some lumbering retriever stopped by on his walk through Flushing Meadow and ate part of the draw. Maybe the 2012 U.S. Open men's singles trophy should feature a large, decorative hole. This absence does make a presence.
"People almost can't believe it," said Roger Federer, apt as usual.
As excellent as tennis' three likable trophy-hoarders have been at manning up, they also have been strikingly great at showing up, and the latter rivals the former in providing the game its compelling definition of the moment. The three skyscrapers have 29 of the last 30 Grand Slam titles, but they also have towering statistics of participation. Federer, 31, will have played 52 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, so by now it's clear that if he ever does skip a Grand Slam, they should just cancel it. Nadal, 26, had thundered through 25 of the previous 26 and 30 of the past 32 before his knee said no this time. Defending U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic will make it 32 in a row on Tuesday … and to think people used to question his durability.
Go back an era and then another and then another. Pete Sampras, beacon of honest effort, did miss five of 52 Slams between 1988 and 2002, the slouch. The thick of Andre Agassi's meandering career stretched across 61 Slams, but he missed 20 of those for this reason or that or the other. The hardy Jim Courier played 30 in a row and 40 of 43, and the fabulous Stefan Edberg made 53 in a row, but Boris Becker missed nine of 54 in his serious years, John McEnroe missed 17 of 62 and Mats Wilander followed a 30-of-31 rush by stepping away for two years at 26.
Even the commendable metronome Ivan Lendl missed six in the thick of his 57-Slam career, including two French Opens to concentrate on Wimbledon. That alley fighter Jimmy Connors sprinkled his 58 Slams across 22 seasons, fewer than three per year. Bjorn Borg missed eight out of 27, then abandoned us all at age 25.
One factor: Australia. Decades ago, Australia was farther from the rest of the world than it is now, until the authorities got together and decided to move it closer. People in the 1970s could reach Australia only by clipper ships that required weeks of slog riddled with tedium and seasickness, admittedly a mild exaggeration. People could not watch, say, "The Hunger Games" on the back of the seat in front of them while pulverizing themselves with alcohol until they forgot entirely that they had been in the air long enough that one-third of their brain cells had died. McEnroe missed the Australian Open nine times. Borg played it only once. Connors played it only twice.
Connors also missed the French Open eight times, which brings us to another factor: surface specialists. In the godforsaken pre-Nadal days, for example, Spanish clay-courters took one look at Wimbledon and didn't really want to fool with that. "Back in the day," Federer said, "you had good hard-court players, the good clay-court players, the good grass-court players, and then obviously throughout slams it wouldn't match up. Now everybody shows up at the Slams and plays so well." All that showing up, Djokovic said on Saturday, "can only work in favor of the sport."
And so, said Federer, "That's why there's such a shock to it now that Rafa pulled out."
"Well, it is strange because he hasn't missed a Slam for a long time," Djokovic said.
"The energy he brings to the match court is incredible, so tennis will definitely, definitely miss him while he's not playing," Andy Murray said.
That energy has grown so familiar that it seems he must be around here somewhere, if only you'll look. It's like the neighbor you half-expect to see, only to recall he relocated. Wait, he might be over there on the practice courts … oh no, wait, all those players look right-handed, the gall of them.
Within hours, of course, the tournament will start forging its own identity, and the absence will grow occluded. Wimbledon 2009, the last Grand Slam Nadal missed, became a story of Murray's first semifinal on SW19 grass, until it became a story of Andy Roddick's exemplary quest, until it became a story of Federer's underrated gumption while combing through 37 consecutive Roddick holds of serve, seeking one break and getting it to win 16-14 in the fifth.
Already we have the theme of Federer coming in slightly and glowingly upgraded with a fresh Wimbledon title and a No. 1 restoration, thinking the matches might have returned to being "on my racquet," as they say in tennis. We have Kim Clijsters saying another farewell and Serena Williams saying another hello. We have Murray's dreams, the one a few days after Wimbledon in which he had won the final but woke to remember that he had lost, the one a few days after the Olympics in which he lost the final but woke to remember that he had won, and the search for one involving the U.S. Open. "I'll keep you posted," he said.
It will proceed as scheduled, with all its energy and its rain delays from distant hurricanes and its calculated lunacy of 1 a.m. match points.
But before it does, well …