For so long, Rafael Nadal looked like Superman on the court. He cast such an imposing presence with his physicality and relentless competitive spirit, breaking down opponents’ morale with his dominance.
But even the mightiest of figures aren't immune to decline, and Nadal’s fall from grace in 2015 has him at the proverbial crossroads. As the losses pile up, doubts escalate. Has he already peaked or will these struggles spur a late-career transformation?
Answers are coming soon.
Injuries have long been a running subplot in the Nadal narrative. The one force he's never really conquered is his own health. Vexed by creaky knees that have forced him to miss extensive time throughout the years, the rest of Nadal's body broke down in 2014 and helped plunge him into his current nadir.
A riveting run to that season’s Australian Open final, punctuated by impressive wins over Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer, ended in heartbreak. Against first-time major finalist Stan Wawrinka, Nadal entered the match a heavy favorite to lift his second title Down Under. But his back had other plans.
Wawrinka stormed out of the gate with heavy baseline artillery, soaring through a virtuosic first set. But it was clear Nadal wasn’t quite himself. Later, he’d disclose that he strained his back while warming up, an injury that progressively worsened throughout the match. Though he would soldier on, Nadal couldn’t overcome that cruel twist of fate and eventually fell meekly in four sets.
Emotional fragments from that unexpected loss seemed to follow Nadal through the spring, yet he once again found triumph on the red dirt in Paris. Since that win over Djokovic in the French Open final, however, the Spaniard’s results have steadily declined.
During the past 16 months, Nadal has failed to even reach the semifinals at any of the Grand Slams. His futility extends to the Masters Series level, where he’s made only one final (Madrid 2015) and gone without a title.
After a disappointing exit at Wimbledon, Nadal entered last August with a bevy of points to defend, thanks to his sizzling 2013 hard-court run. He’d leave empty handed, unable to compete after another physical setback.
The culprit this time? A right wrist injury suffered during training. Forced to sit out the entire 2014 U.S. Open Series, Nadal lost valuable ground, as he slipped in the rankings.
When he finally made his return in Beijing, Nadal struggled to find his form after that time off. A quarterfinal loss to journeyman Martin Klizan there served as a prelude to more misery.
Before the Shanghai Masters, Nadal contracted appendicitis. Another crack in the foundation. He tried to play through the ailment, but a second-round loss there and a quarterfinal exit in Basel to young prodigy Borna Coric forced him to pull the plug on his season and undergo surgery.
It wouldn’t be his only trip under the knife at the end of 2014. Still dealing with lingering back pain, Nadal also opted for stem cell treatment. All those setbacks clearly took a toll on him, not just physically, but in terms of his psyche.
So far this year, Nadal looks like a shell of the man who used to strike fear into opponents every time he stepped on the court. A season-opening loss in Doha to Michael Berrer served as a bad omen for the Australian Open, where he barely outlasted unheralded Tim Smyczek in the second round and was ultimately rocked by Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.
Not even clay could do much to swing his fortunes. On his beloved terre battue, Nadal dropped an unprecedented six matches. Besides a pair of surprising losses to Fabio Fognini, Nadal left Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome after lopsided beatings by his top rivals.
He’d enter the French Open short on confidence and momentum, and it showed. His five-year reign at Roland Garros ended in unceremonious fashion, as Djokovic blasted him in a quarterfinal romp.
The “King of Clay” had been dethroned.
A title on the lawns of Stuttgart offered false hope for Nadal’s grass campaign. He’d go on to lose his first match at Queen’s Club and leave Wimbledon after a shock second-round loss to qualifier Dustin Brown.
Rock bottom may be too strong a phrase to describe his status, but clearly Nadal hit a new low.
Earlier this year, Reuters quoted Nadal as saying:
I am feeling more tired than usual, feeling that I don't have this self confidence that when I hit the ball I am going to hit the ball where I want to hit the ball, to go for the ball knowing that my position will be the right one. One of the tougher things has been fixed, that is the game, in my opinion.
Now I need to fix again the nerves, the self-control on court.
An athlete—especially one as strong-willed as Nadal—so openly expressing issues with confidence is something not often heard. It raised plenty of eyebrows. For the first time, Nadal seemed fragile psychologically, an area that used to be his fortress.
Regaining that sense of belief can only come with success. And despite his best efforts to do so, Nadal hasn’t yet turned the tide.
All this losing must annoy him to no end, and you can bet Nadal has worked tirelessly in the gym and on the practice courts to regain his form.
Perhaps things are finally swinging back in his favor.
Last week, Nadal captured an important title (his third of 2015) on the dirt in Hamburg. No, he didn’t have to beat any Top 10 peers and the event itself lacks cache. But leaving Germany as a champion is a sign of progress. Or at the very least, hope.
Will that momentum carry over to the hard courts? We’re about to find out. Working in his favor is this simple reality: He has nowhere to go but up.
Sitting at No. 9 in the rankings, Nadal has everything to gain and nothing to lose the next few weeks. Because he sat out Toronto, Cincinnati and the U.S. Open, valuable points are there for his taking.
He won’t have to look at that odd number next to his name for much longer. That is, if he can continue to iron out the kinks in his game.
Nadal is desperate for progress this upcoming stretch, not only to silence the doubters but to prove something to himself. At age 29, his prime years may be over, but there’s no reason he can’t have a successful second act in his narrative.
Write him off at your own peril.
All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.