Why Is Rafael Nadal Struggling? Blame Tennis's 13th-Major Curse

Tennis greats have encountered lulls, rough patches, and career detours between their 13th and 14th Grand Slam singles titles for almost a century.

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.

Retired tennis player Jeff Salzenstein, once ranked No. 91 in the ATP, believes that Nadal’s drought could stem from “a bit of programming or subconscious beliefs.” “Maybe something is going on his life,” Salzenstein said—after all, he pointed out, Nadal’s play suffered around the time he learned that his parents were separating, resulting in his only French Open loss in 2009.

But history shows that Nadal is far from the first to endure a rocky stretch after winning a 13th Grand Slam. In fact, so many tennis players in the last century have struggled at this stage that you could even call it a curse. Historians of the game have yet to expend much analysis on the unusual plight of Grand Slam champions after securing their 13th Slam. But almost all male and female players who have earned a 14th Slam, from the superstitious to the famously rational, have experienced what can only be described as outré occurrences.

Nadal, for example, is just the third man to ever be in the position to seek a 14th major title, but he’s the third of three to face some serious setbacks in the process. Pete Sampras was the first to overcome the 13th Slam hex, and it wasn’t without a spell of uncharacteristic play. Sampras loitered for two years on the ATP Tour after winning Wimbledon in 2000: His ranking dropped all the way to 17th in the world, and he was dogged by constant calls to retire until he won an improbable U.S. Open title in 2002. And the usually composed Roger Federer famously cried and had to be consoled at the podium of the Australian Open in 2009 while experiencing his own 13th-Slam curse, after a shocking defeat at the hands of the weary Rafael Nadal.

Nadal, who rushed to hug the teary Federer after foiling him in his bid for Slam No. 14, can now likely empathize with Federer’s agony.

On the women’s side, we find the earliest occurrence of an odd lull between Slam No. 13 and Slam No. 14: It was in the case of Helen Wills Moody, she of the “awkward personality” and the impeccable attacking serve and volley game. Her strange story, however, is marked not by a bout of poor play but rather by a brief, bizarre career change. When she won her 13th major at Wimbledon in 1930, she was enjoying a streak that still defies logic, winning every set she played for four straight years. But after locking up Slam No. 13, she disappeared from the scene, a stretch of time in which she contributed a chapter to philosopher Will Durant’s 1931 book On the Meaning of Life, pondered launching a film career, and unceremoniously decided not to defend three consecutive majors. Questions arose about her commitment and the validity of her No. 1 ranking, but she returned at peak level with a new mindset and won the 1931 U.S. Open at the West Side Tennis Club.

A more traditional curse, though, plagued her protégé, Martina Navratilova. After winning her 13th Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 1985, Bud Collins commented that the sport needed to create a higher league for Navratilova to compete in. On the verge of clinching her 14th Slam, Navratilova ran into her old foe Chris Evert, who she had mostly owned up to that point. The two played what is commonly referred to as one of the greatest women’s matches in history, with Evert going on to win the unlikely title. While Navratilova would eventually earn her revenge (and a 14th Slam) at Wimbledon four weeks later, the match came to be seen as an inflection point in their rivalry and gave Evert the mental edge in the years to come.

Margaret Smith chose to retire from the sport unexpectedly at the age of 24 after winning her 13th Slam at the Australian Open in 1966 but suffering unusual defeats at the two ensuing Slams. During her year and a half of retired life, she married Barry Court, took on the name Court, and started a family. She launched a comeback in 1968, and it took a year of futility and uncharacteristic results (as well as the start of the Open Era) to get her back in form. But in 1969, she broke the curse, reclaimed her Australian Open title, and went on to win 11 more Slams on the way to a still-unsurpassed 24 majors.

For Serena Williams, the consequences of the 13th-Slam curse were harrowing. While trying out new high heels at a 2011 Vanity Fair Oscar Party, Williams stepped on a piece of glass. The injury immobilized her and then produced a blood clot that spiraled quickly into a pulmonary embolism. Soon, she was fighting for her life and doubting a return to tennis. Two years later, however, she made a remarkable resurgence back to the top of the WTA Tour and fended off a hungry Agnieska Radwanska to break the curse at Wimbledon in 2012.

Tennis and superstition have been a natural pairing since the days of wooden rackets. Pancho Gonzales never rolled or folded his socks during tournaments. Bjorn Bjorg grew a beard and wore the same Fila Shirt for both weeks at Wimbledon. Conchita Martinez would seek to secure the identical ball she won the previous point with before agreeing to serve. But Jon Wertheim, renowned tennis journalist and historian and author of Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played, said that, given all the superstition in tennis, “What’s weird is that you don’t hear a lot about numerology in the sport.”

"I’ve never heard any player say that 'this is unlucky Grand Slam No. 13, and something is going to befall me before I win No. 14,'" Wertheim said.

It seems oddly fitting that Nadal, famous for his superstitions (which include tugging on his shorts, stroking his hair, and keeping both water bottles at even level), would be stuck on the ignominious number of 13. Yet Wertheim believes that the peculiar rut that Nadal finds himself in is just part of Nadal's unique career, marked by wild ebbs and flows. “At some level, this is just regression to the mean and he is victim to his own standards. This has been a very puzzling year for Nadal, but it is in keeping with his career,” Wertheim said.

“Just when he looks ready for world domination, he has a demise—and then when you are about to write him off, he is a world beater again.”

One would be unwise to start mourning Nadal’s career, as his grasp on clay over the last decade has been unassailable. But it is clear that Nadal’s name can be inscribed on the list of victims of the 13th-Slam hex. As the French Open, set to begin May 25, approaches, Nadal can only hope that he gets through the spell as seamlessly as Chris Evert and Steffi Graf, the only two champions to survive unscathed.