On January 25, 2014, it seemed all but inevitable that Rafael Nadal was about to win his 14th Grand Slam.
After coming back in 2013 from a career-threatening knee injury to reclaim the number-one ATP Tennis ranking, Nadal had stormed through a series of talented upstarts in his Australian Open draw and capped it off by taking out his principal rival Roger Federer in a satisfying semifinal duel. He had caught a break in the draw: His nemesis Novak Djokovic would not be waiting for him in the finals, but rather Stanislas Wawrinka, a relative journeyman who had never taken a set off of Nadal in any of their previous meetings. Pete Sampras, the first man to ever reach a 14th Grand Slam title, had boarded a 16-hour flight to Australia for the first time in over a decade, likely convinced he would be there to coronate Nadal.
Except something happened on the way to Nadal’s “routine” 14th Slam. He lost. After a slow start in the match, he reached skyward to complete the herky-jerky service motion and twisted his back. The crowd gasped and Nadal looked desperately at his box. Nadal kept competing, but his level slipped; Wawrinka won in four sets.
Since Nadal’s Australian Open debacle, his back has fully healed. But his foibles have followed him. Prior to this season, Rafael Nadal had won more than 93 percent of his matches on his beloved clay and hadn’t lost at Monte Carlo or Barcelona to someone not named Novak Djokovic since President George W. Bush’s first term. This clay season, Nadal has played in two clay court tournaments so far, unceremoniously losing in the quarterfinals at both Barcelona and Monte Carlo to players he had dominated over the last decade. He had won at least one—usually both—of these tournaments every single season dating back to 2004.