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Nadal withdrew from the grass-court Grand Slam tournament Friday, three days before it begins, becoming only the second men's champion in 35 years to decline to defend his Wimbledon title.
"When I start a tournament like Wimbledon, it is to try to win," the No. 1-ranked Nadal said, "and my feeling right now is I'm not ready to play to win."
A subdued Nadal, wearing a purple T-shirt and white pants, spoke at a news conference Friday evening at the All England Club, in the same room where he took questions after beating Roger Federer in the epic 2008 final that ended after 9 p.m. with light fading.
He announced his withdrawal about 2 1/2 hours after losing to 18th-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka in an exhibition match on grass at Hurlingham Club in south London.
"Today was the last test. I didn't feel terrible but not close to my best," said Nadal, who also lost an exhibition match against 2002 Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt on Thursday. "I'm just not 100 percent. I'm better than I was a couple of weeks ago, but I just don't feel ready."
Nadal called it "one of the toughest decisions of my career," but he also added: "There's no option. I don't feel ready to compete 100 percent for two weeks."
He is the first reigning Wimbledon men's champion to pull out of the following year's tournament since Goran Ivanisevic in 2002. Otherwise, it hadn't happened since 1973, when Stan Smith opted not to defend his Wimbledon title because of an ATP boycott of the tournament.
Nadal has complained about his knees since a fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling at the French Open on May 31 ended his streak of four consecutive championships at Roland Garros. Later that week, Nadal pulled out of the Wimbledon tuneup tournament at Queen's Club, then went to Barcelona to have tests on his knees.
"I think I reached the limit right now. I need to reset to come back stronger," Nadal said.
Asked what sort of threat the knee problems might present to his career moving forward, he said: "It's not chronic. I can recover, for sure."
His exit opens the door for Federer to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, a spot he held for a record 237 consecutive weeks until Nadal pushed him down to No. 2 in August. Federer, who is 7-13 against Nadal, also avoided facing him at the French Open. Instead of a fourth consecutive final in Paris against Nadal, Federer faced Soderling for the championship June 7 and won in straight sets to complete a career Grand Slam and tie Pete Sampras' record of 14 major titles.
Federer's agent, Tony Godsick, said the Swiss star would wait to comment on Nadal's withdrawal until a pre-tournament news conference Saturday.
Nadal looked ragged during his straight-set loss against Hewitt on Thursday. But the Spaniard appeared in better condition against Wawrinka, several times racing toward the net for sharp volleys or scurrying along the baseline for winning groundstrokes on the run.
Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni, sat a few rows behind a baseline at the cozy Hurlingham Club court, close enough for them to converse between points, which they did on more than one occasion. After the match, Toni Nadal declined to discuss his nephew's play, saying, "I need to talk to Rafa."
Decked out in an all-white outfit — other than touches of purple, Wimbledon's traditional color, including the "Rafa" stamped on the back of his right heel — Nadal did not play either of the exhibition matches with tape below his knees, something he usually does.
Aside from the physical issues, Nadal spoke Friday about the mental toll the injury has taken. This is, after all, a player whose rise to the upper echelon of tennis was built in part on his ability to race around a court and track down shots.
"One of the big problems is, when I am playing, I'm thinking more about the knees than about the game. So that's very difficult to play well like this, no?" the six-time major champion said.
By pulling out after Friday morning's draw, Nadal forced organizers to shuffle the men's bracket. No. 5-seeded Juan Martin del Potro was moved from a potential semifinal against No. 2 Federer on the bottom half of the field into Nadal's old spot in the top half. And No. 17 James Blake switched from the top half to the bottom half in del Potro's old spot — and a possible semifinal against Federer.
It also means that No. 6 Andy Roddick, a two-time Wimbledon runner-up, now could face del Potro — rather than Nadal — in the quarterfinals. The other potential men's quarterfinals are Federer vs. No. 7 Fernando Verdasco; No. 3 Andy Murray vs. No. 7 Gilles Simon; and Blake vs. No. 4 Novak Djokovic.
After shaking up the tournament, Nadal sat on a couch in a players' lounge area, chatting for quite awhile with his spokesman, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, and Djokovic. As it approached 10 p.m. — later, even, than the finishing time of his epic match against Federer a year ago — Nadal finally rose to leave. That trio, along with Uncle Toni, walked toward one of the black steel gates that guard the All England Club's exits. The gate was locked shut.
"How do you get out of Wimbledon?" Perez-Barbadillo asked aloud.
They eventually found another — unlocked — gate, and Rafael Nadal, 2008 Wimbledon champion, departed the grounds, his 2009 Wimbledon over before he hit a single shot.