Contentious Nadal-Djokovic exhibition match cancelled
Nadal injury puts paid to Saudi contest that came under fire over Khashoggi killing
Rafael Nadal: had ankle surgery earlier this week to remove a floating body in the joint. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal’s controversial exhibition match in Saudi Arabia next month has been called off after the Spaniard underwent ankle surgery.
Both players were heavily criticised for agreeing to the lucrative contest in light of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, with the exhibition announced less than a week after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Talking about the event at last week’s Paris Masters, both men said they committed to it a year ago and needed more information before taking a final decision about whether to compete.
But Nadal’s ankle surgery earlier this week to remove a floating body in the joint after an abdominal injury ruled him out of the ATP Finals, means a politically sensitive decision has been taken out of their hands.
Speaking at a press conference ahead of the tournament at London’s O2 Arena, Djokovic told reporters: “It’s not happening.”
Asked if that was because of Nadal’s injury, Djokovic replied simply: “Yes.”
Djokovic arrived in London back on top of the rankings for the first time since October 2016 following a remarkable upturn in form.
Ranked 22nd in June after two years of struggles with form and fitness that eventually saw him undergo elbow surgery, the Serbian has lost only two of his past 33 matches, winning back-to-back grand slam titles at Wimbledon and the US Open.
He said: “I’m very proud of that achievement and I understand that it’s extra special this year because of the journey I’ve been through in the last 15 months, especially and particularly in the last eight to 10 months.
“It turned to out to be a perfect five months of the year, with two Grand Slam titles.”
Djokovic is looking to join Roger Federer as the most successful player in the history of the tournament by winning his sixth title and fifth at the O2.
Djokovic lifted the trophy for four years in a row between 2012 and 2015, while Federer is bidding for his first title since 2011.
The pair are the top two seeds in the absence of the injured Rafael Nadal, with Djokovic in Group Guga Kuerten along with Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic and John Isner, while Federer is in Group Lleyton Hewitt alongside Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem and Kei Nishikori.
Federer opens his campaign on Sunday evening against Nishikori, with Djokovic taking on Isner on Monday.
Should Federer, who lost narrowly to Djokovic in Paris last week, end his seven-year drought, he would become only the second man in the Open era after Jimmy Connors to win 100 singles titles.
It would be a brilliant way to end the season but the 37-year-old insisted he was not in a hurry, saying: “I don’t think it matters really where I win my 100th as long as it happens at one point. If I won here it’s more about winning the World Tour Finals than my 100th.”