All season long, the same questions have followed Rafael Nadal.
What’s wrong with him? Will he turn things around? Is he finished?
A dark cloud magnified over Nadal with each head-scratching loss, leaving many to wonder how the former king of tennis could’ve fallen so far and so fast. He never quite bottomed out, but a slip to No. 10 in the world (his lowest ranking in over a decade) and the litany of disappointing defeats on his precious clay were stark departures from his usual standard of dominance.
There’s no doubt about it: Nadal was mired in a deep rut. And his candid admissions of struggles with confidence, per Simon Evans of Reuters, were just as eye-opening as his relatively poor results.
For a guy who not only battered helpless foes with this aggressive play but demoralized them with his unshakeable will, the 29-year-old suddenly looked unsure of himself mentally and in terms of his game. Forehands lacked bite and sailed helplessly long or lacked depth altogether. On pressure points, too often, he let his opponents take the initiative and didn’t have the same reliability during long rallies.
When Tomas Berdych bullied Nadal during a lopsided quarterfinal loss at the Australian Open, it signified a bad omen for the Spaniard. Yet the prevailing thought was that he'd just need a little time to shake off the rust from his injury-riddled 2014 season. The clay-court swing would be his elixir.
Only things didn't go according to plan. At all.
His slump not only continued on the terre battue—it intensified. He'd lose in Rio de Janeiro to new nemesis Fabio Fognini before capturing a small title in Buenos Aires, but things went downhill on the European dirt.
First, there was a semifinal drubbing by Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. Then a third-round loss to Fognini in Barcelona. Andy Murray added to his pain by cruising past Nadal in the Madrid final. On the slower clay of Rome, Stan Wawrinka notched a lopsided win against him.
These were tournaments Nadal ruthlessly controlled in the past. Now? He found himself losing in straight sets to rivals. Not even the red earth in Paris could help the nine-time French Open champion regain his mojo, and Djokovic dethroned him in an anti-climactic quarterfinal clash.
His fortunes were even worse over the summer. Nadal suffered a second-round loss at Wimbledon and early defeats in Montreal and Cincinnati before watching Fognini stun him (again) at the U.S. Open, where he blew a two-sets-to-love lead for the first time in his career.
That match in New York qualified as the nadir for Nadal, the perfect encapsulation of everything that was ailing him. The sour taste left in his mouth by another loss to Fognini sent Nadal back to the practice courts, where he'd toiled for months to turn things around.
Something clicked for him after the U.S. Open.
All along, Nadal had been adamant that patience was required to see things through. No amount of gym work or preparation would be as beneficial as earning some hard-fought wins to boost his confidence.
Since hitting the courts in China, he's put together a string of the impressive results he so desperately desired. And his level of self-belief is growing by the day.
In Beijing, Nadal scored a tough comeback victory against Jack Sock and a redemptive takedown of Fognini to reach the final. Djokovic swatted him away for the title, but the week nonetheless signified progress for Nadal. He'd carry that momentum into Shanghai, where he outlasted the serving barrage of Ivo Karlovic and took down Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka in succession.
He just missed out on another final appearance there, losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a tense semifinal. But the very next week, Nadal rebounded to make the championship match in Basel. After stopping a trio of talented players (Grigor Dimitrov, Marin Cilic and Richard Gasquet), Nadal finally set up a showdown with Roger Federer—their first meeting in nearly two years.
Federer would prevail over three heart-pounding sets, yet Nadal's progress was clear even in defeat. The forehand that had previously gone haywire? It was a weapon once again. His groundstrokes, in general, seem to have more depth, which opens up numerous tactical advantages. The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together.
Even though he didn't win titles in Basel or China, his play in those spots was especially encouraging in comparison to his previous struggles. Nadal sunk so low earlier in the season he considered skipping the World Tour Finals—if he even qualified.
But as he told the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), those doubts have washed away thanks to his recent run of good form.
Nadal is quoted as saying:
It was not physical, it was mental. If I was not enjoying on court and not feeling competitive, so it would probably not make sense to play on the toughest surface for me.
The story now is different, no? I'm enjoying on the court. I don't have the nerves I had during the season. Doesn't matter if I lose, I win, but I'm enjoying on court, on practice court, so I'm going to be there.
Fewer nerves and a renewed vigor for the game—those are factors Nadal longed for during his woes. And they're back to being his allies. It's no wonder he's looked like a different (and better) player in the last few weeks.
Including his opening-round win over Lukas Rosol at the Paris Masters, Nadal is 12-3 since the U.S. Open. To put that record in perspective, he was just 44-15 prior to arriving in Beijing. So, yes, he's on an upward trajectory.
How he fares in Paris and the World Tour Finals to cap this season could be his springboard back into Grand Slam contention next year.
Although Nadal won lower-tier titles in Buenos Aires, Stuttgart and Hamburg during 2015, what seems like ages have passed since he's captured a tournament of note. In fact, he hasn't made a major final since the 2014 French Open or even conquered a Masters Series event in 18 months.
That drought may soon end.
As he continues to distance himself from the bitter losses that plagued throughout this campaign, Nadal is looking forward rather than behind. Instead of dwelling on the negative, he's kept his eye on the big picture, and thanks to improved played this fall, there's a light at the end of the tunnel he's intent to bask in.
Because he's been a force within tennis for so long, it's sometimes easy to forget that Nadal is only 29—far from over the hill.
Provided he stays healthy, there's no reason not to expect him to have a few quality seasons left. But 2016 will be the turning point as he enters the back end of his career.
Armed with confidence and the results to back it up, Nadal will be out to dispel the scrutiny surrounding him and prove that 2015 wasn't the end but merely a detour. Besides regaining his crown at Roland Garros, Nadal has a bigger mission in mind: stopping Djokovic's monarchy.
Expect a resurgent Nadal to be up for the challenge.
All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.