Any tennis player who has won at least 16 major championships has been richly blessed. Yet, even a hugely successful career can be profoundly unlucky in specific moments.
After the 2019 U.S. Open, and after the end of the past decade of major tournaments, preparing the way for the 2020s, this is as good a time as any to look at the Big 3 — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer — and their unlucky moments in majors.
The purpose of this piece is NOT to create a hierarchy among the Big 3 in terms of good or bad luck. It is NOT to create the idea that they all have suffered equally, either, as though there are no differences.
The point is to simply illustrate that these three men have all won at least 16 major titles — a ton — and yet have paradoxically been unlucky on several of the occasions in which they didn’t win. The emphasis on bad luck is not a mistake they made or a point they didn’t win (because those things are more within a player’s control).
The emphasis is on outside forces or factors beyond a player’s control having a degree of influence on an outcome — not necessarily DETERMINING the result, but SHAPING it to some extent. (This discussion should also not mean that anyone who defeated these players in particular sets of circumstances didn’t deserve or earn his victory.)
Before continuing, one more note: The idea that a player was unlucky should not be taken as an implied statement that he WOULD have won if his injury or limitation had not emerged, only that he was in position to pursue a major title but got knocked off track to some degree by the injury.
And now, Rafael Nadal, “unlucky.”
He took a medical timeout for his knee in the fourth set of the 2007 Wimbledon final against Federer.
Nadal had to play on Sunday in a suspended 2008 U.S. Open men’s semifinal before the Monday final. He lost to Andy Murray in a semifinal which started roughly 90 minutes later than the first semifinal between Federer and Djokovic, which was completed on Saturday.
Federer finished his semifinal on Saturday and had a full day off before playing Murray in the final.
Nadal was unable to play 2009 Wimbledon and defend his championship due to injury.
Nadal was visibly impaired in his 2009 U.S. Open semifinal loss to Juan Martin del Potro.
Nadal retired, down two sets, in the 2010 Australian Open quarterfinals against Murray.
Nadal was visibly impaired in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals against David Ferrer.
Nadal was unable to play in the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Australian Open due to injury.
Nadal was visibly impaired in the 2014 Australian Open final against Stan Wawrinka.
Nadal was unable to play in the 2014 U.S. Open due to injury.
Nadal was visibly limited, far from fully energized, in his 2015 Australian Open quarterfinal loss to longtime inferior Tomas Berdych.
Nadal got injured during the 2016 Roland Garros tournament and had to withdraw before the third round.
Nadal was unable to play 2016 Wimbledon due to injury.
Nadal had only one day off before the 2017 Australian Open final against Roger Federer, while Federer had two days off.
Nadal retired against Marin Cilic in the 2018 Australian Open quarterfinals. He led 2 sets to 1 and got injured in set four.
Nadal retired against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2018 U.S. Open semifinals.