He was missed at Wimbledon after he crashed out on bad knees, because for years he was all that stood between Roger Federer and utter world domination. He was missed at the U.S. Open where, in the course of roughly 12 months, he experienced ecstasy as he completed his career Grand Slam in 2010 -- and abject disappointment when he was forced to relinquish that title to Novak Djokovic.
But one place where Rafael Nadal will not be especially missed is in Davis Cup, as much as his Spanish brethren and fans worldwide would love to see him perform in this weekend's tie against the Czech Republic. Rafa won't be missed because Spain has done remarkably well in the event even when Nadal has been unavailable. It's something in which this group of talented Iberian players takes special pride, because it makes them partners in what can only be called Davis Cup dynasty.
Spain has won the Davis Cup five times since it finally broke through to win the prestigious international team competition for the first time in 2000. Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa were the heroes for Spain in that initial triumph, but the Spanish had to wait four more years to win again.
It was no coincidence that 2004 was the first year that Nadal played -- as well as the coming-of-age year for Spain. A raw rookie of 18, Nadal impressed enormously at home on red clay, backing up Carlos Moya's win over American Mardy Fish in the first rubber with an improbable upset of American No. 1 Andy Roddick in the second match -- a performance that more or less sealed the visitors' fate and also alerted the losers, and much of the world, to an extraordinary new talent.
But it also was no coincidence that Rafa missed the next and perhaps most telling win for Spain, the one that proved that something special was going on in Iberia. In what would be an omen, Nadal pulled out of the 2008 final at Argentina because of troublesome tendinitis in his knees. Critics saw little hope for Spain, given that Nadal (who had by then matured into a rival to Federer) was MIA and Argentina hosted on an indoor hard court favored over clay by the home side's two high-quality singles players, veteran Grand Slam finalist David Nalbandian and emerging star Juan Martin del Potro.
But lo and behold, the Spanish pulled off the Massacre of Mar del Plata, thanks to unexpected heroics by Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco. Lopez, the southpaw serve-and-volley proponent, upset del Potro in the second rubber. Spain won the doubles. Then Verdasco, substituting for David Ferrer, clinched the tie with a fourth-rubber win over Jose Acasuso -- himself a substitute for del Potro.
Having won two of its first three championships without the services of Nadal, Spain could legitimately claim dynasty. Nobody could accuse Spain of being a one- or even a two-man team. David Ferrer, currently the ATP No. 5 player and the Spanish No. 1 in this tie, lost the first Davis Cup match he played (debut: 2006) and two of his first four. He also flubbed the opening rubber in the 2008 championship tie in Argentina, although Spain pulled that one out.
That's it for the lows. Over time, Ferrer has developed into a Davis Cup stud. He has lost just one match apart from the ones I mentioned, compiling a singles record of 21-4. Nadal himself trails Ferrer by one singles win, although at 20-1 Rafa's winning percentage is higher.
Nicolas Almagro, the Spanish No. 2 in this weekend's tie, is a top-10 player who becomes dispensable when Nadal is fit to play. But when "Nico" has been given opportunity, he has come out of Ferrer's shadow to put up some good wins. He's 8-2, all in singles.
The pundits and Czech supporters have made a fairly big deal out of how fast the court will be in Prague's 02 Arena, but that edge cuts both ways. Although Ferrer is a beast on clay, he has won just one Masters 1000 title. That was just a few weeks ago, in Paris, on a comparably slick indoor surface.
There's no doubt that this squad belongs to Nadal, and probably will as long as he can hobble onto the court or out to the bench. But Ferrer is having a career year, and Almagro's counterpart, Czech No. 2 Radek Stepanek, is ranked a lowly No. 37. Plus, he's 33 years old.
Once again, there's a good chance that Spain has players with feet big enough to fit into Rafa's shoes when it comes to Davis Cup.