Michael Pavitt

The return of Wimbledon later this month will continue the push back towards normality, after the event was cancelled for the first time since the Second World War last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main focus of the event has been the possibility of having full capacity for the finals, which would mark a first at an outdoor sporting event in the UK since the pandemic began.

Understandably there was a strong demand for tickets when they went on sale this week, with the tournament potentially concluding in front of 15,000 spectators at Centre Court on July 10 and 11.

The buzz regarding Wimbledon’s return has been tempered somewhat by the announcements this week that women’s world number two Naomi Osaka’s absence will continue and Spain’s Rafael Nadal will miss the event as he seeks to prolong his career.

Nadal confirmed he would also miss the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, with the 35-year-old citing the need to listen to his body.

"The goal is to prolong my career and continue to do what makes me happy, that is to compete at the highest level and keep fighting for those professional and personal goals at the maximum level of competition,” Nadal said.

"The fact that there has only been two weeks between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, didn’t make it easier on my body to recuperate after the always demanding clay court season.

"They have been two months of great effort and the decision I take is focused looking at the mid and long term.

"Sport prevention of any kind of excess in my body is a very important factor at this stage of my career in order to try to keep fighting for the highest level of competition and titles.”

Nadal highlighted the importance of the Olympic Games to his career, having won singles gold at Beijing 2008 and the doubles title at Rio 2016.

His withdrawal comes only weeks after debate centred around Roger Federer’s decision to pull out of the French Open after winning his first three matches of this year’s Grand Slam event. The Swiss star, who turns 40 later this year, stressed that it was important not to push his body too quickly after rehabilitating in 2020 after knee surgeries.

While there was some debate over whether Federer should have participated at the French Open to help prepare for Wimbledon, where he will seek a ninth title at the tournament, the majority appear to have understood both his and Nadal’s decisions.

Their absence will be felt by organisers and fans, but no-one is in doubt over their commitment to the sport. The disappointment is simply due to sports fans wanting to see more of them, with the awareness their careers are in the twilight stage.

If withdrawing from events helps to preserve their fitness and keep them on tour for longer, then fans can accept the odd withdrawal here and there.

Perhaps we can offer similar leeway to other athletes amid the increasingly challenging schedules top stars are having to contend with, particularly due to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have at times questioned why certain sports feature during the Olympic Games, when several top stars withdraw for questionable reasons.

Roger Federer pulled out during the French Open citing the need to listen to his body ©Getty Images
Roger Federer pulled out during the French Open citing the need to listen to his body ©Getty Images

This was particularly true ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics, when 20 of the top men’s golfers opted not to participate as the sport returned to the Olympic programme. The Zika virus was cited by many at the time, only for several players to compete in tournaments in locations where the outbreak was at higher levels.

Ahead of Tokyo 2020, it is worth being more sympathetic to athletes from professional tours and leagues, rather than question their commitment to competing and representing their nation at the Olympic Games.

The decision of the newly crowned NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Nikola Jokić not to compete for Serbia at the Olympic qualifier next month and Tokyo 2020, should they advance, has led to a significant debate in his nation.

"To my great regret, this is the moment when I have to announce that despite my great desire, I am not able to play for the national team," a statement from Jokić read this week. "Simply, the condition of my body requires a longer absence from the field to recover. That is the club's attitude and suggestion I have to accept.”

One Serbian website went with the headline “Nikola Jokić divided Serbia” to highlight the various opinions around his absence. Comparisons have been drawn to another NBA star in Luka Doncic, who has joined with immediately with Slovenia to help their pursuit of an Olympic berth.

The tabloid newspaper Blic had an extreme reaction with the headline “From the nation’s hero to traitor of the Serbian people.”

Nikola Jokić's decision not to compete for Serbia at Tokyo 2020 has caused debate in his nation ©Getty Images
Nikola Jokić's decision not to compete for Serbia at Tokyo 2020 has caused debate in his nation ©Getty Images

The latter’s reaction would be inappropriate at the best of times, let alone when players are facing such a demanding schedule with only a short break after the NBA bubble leading into a condensed season.

It has been noted that Jokić has played all 109 matches played by the Denver Nuggets since the start of August last year, leading to the NBA side expressing concerns over his opportunity to rest over the summer.

Jokić, dubbed “The Joker”, was the first MVP to feature in every match of the regular season since the late Kobe Bryant in 2008.

The absence of Jokić, the first Serbian to win the NBA MVP award, is understandably a blow to their hopes and does represent a potential blow should they qualify for the Olympic tournament next month. It would be interesting to see whether his influence could have helped close the gap to the United States five years on from being part of the team which lost 96-66 in the gold medal match at Rio 2016.

Jokić will not be the only NBA star to be absent from Tokyo 2020, with American star LeBron James confirming he would not feature at the Games. 

James told reporters this month he would “play for the Toon Squad this summer instead of the Olympics”, referencing the launch of the Space Jam 2 film he stars in. It is possible that an injury-hit season may also have contributed to James’ decision.

The potential absence of several star names from Tokyo 2020 would be a blow, but should be seen as understandable in the circumstances.