* Knee injury forces Spaniard to withdraw
* First man unable to defend Wimbledon title since 2002
* Nadal says he is suffering from swelling of knee joints
* Sure he can recover
By Pritha Sarkar
LONDON, June 19 (Reuters) - Champion Rafael Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon on Friday after losing his battle to recover from a knee injury.
“Unfortunately this year I won’t be able to play at Wimbledon,” he told a news conference in Spanish.
The Spaniard, who has been struggling with tendinitis in his knees since being knocked out of the French Open last month, tested his fitness in two exhibition matches this week but after losing both decided not to defend his Wimbledon title just three days before the start of the major.
He will be the first man not to defend his All England Club crown since Croatia’s Goran Ivanisevic skipped the grasscourt grand slam in 2002.
“Not to play Wimbledon is one of the toughest decisions in my career but the decision was made easier because I don’t feel ready to compete at 100 percent for two weeks,” said Nadal.
”I don’t feel like I‘m ready to play in a tournament that is as important as Wimbledon so I have decided I cannot play this year.
”I was making an effort to play week after week ... but I have two oedema (swelling of the knee joint), one in each knee... and now I‘m going to be out.. I don’t know what time, how long.
“I tried everything, I tried hard in the last week to get in the best condition and today was my last test,” added the world number one, who tried to play through the pain in an exhibition match against Stanislas Wawrinka.
“I didn’t feel terrible but I was not at my best.”
Just two hours before announcing that the world’s most famous tournament will have to make do without its top seed and champion, Nadal made a last-ditch effort to see if he could rescue his Wimbledon hopes.
The fans at the aristocratic Hurlingham country club, just a few miles down the road from the scene of Nadal’s astonishing five-set defeat of Roger Federer in the final 12 months ago, marvelled at the dashing Spaniard.
But the assembled media only had eyes for Nadal’s knees.
Every bend and stretch by Nadal was scrutinised but the Mallorcan gave precious little away with his body language during what was a reasonably strenuous workout against Olympic doubles champion Wawrinka.
The Mallorcan had grimaced his way through a two-set defeat against Lleyton Hewitt the previous day yet appeared more relaxed on Friday as he showed few obvious signs of pain from his knees.
It proved to only mask the torment he felt inside.
“I’ve played with some problems in my knees for a few months but I always felt I’d try and try. You don’t know what your limit is ... but I have now reached the limit.”
Nadal, however, dismissed suggestions the injury was career threatening.
”It’s not a chronic problem, I can recover for sure.
“I‘m going to work very hard to come back as soon as possible, and when I came back I want to come back 100 percent mentality and physical (fit) to win, because the problem right now is when I‘m playing I‘m thinking more about the knees then about the game, so that is very difficult to play.”
“I am 23 years old and I hope to have a long career and come back next year... no one is more disappointed than me and the (Wimbledon crowd) must understand I tried my best.”
Nadal’s withdrawal means Britain’s world number three Andy Murray is the highest seed left in that half of the draw.
Editing by Dave Thompson. To query or comment on this story email email@example.com