He’s the No. 5-ranked player in the world, but superstar Rafael Nadal endured a turbulent 2015 tennis season.
The Spaniard’s dramatic role was the classic, fallen hero who sought to regain his past glory. Amid the frustrations of more losses and the disappearance of his former clay-court empire, Nadal had to turn within to slowly build back his lost confidence.
By almost anyone else’s standards, a top-five ranking would be a dream come true, but Nadal is a 14-time major winner and one of history’s greatest players.
Media articles and press conferences continued to ask what was wrong.
It was during the U.S. Open that Nadal reminded everyone that a (then) No. 8 ranking is still a terrific accomplishment, per Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post:
I am No. 8 in the world; I am not No. 100.
I don’t know. It seems like I am No. 200 in every press conference. I am not so bad.
After I arrive [sic] here with the victory, I come back to the locker room [hearing people] saying how bad I am. Every day.
Now that 2015 is history, how will Nadal’s year be remembered? We could look at his results compared to almost all other ATP players and it’s outstanding, but we will measure Nadal’s year by his ability. In other words, how did Nadal do when compared with his past and the expectations most fans and tennis followers had?
And what is the outlook for Nadal in 2016? He will be our focus in our weekly superstar profile, the first of five articles in December that evaluate the top five players in men’s tennis.
Nadal’s career has largely been defined by his spring and early-summer results. By this standard, Nadal’s 2015 was a failure. He was destroyed by Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open quarterfinals, an opponent who had served as his whipping boy for 17 consecutive prior matches.
After winning one minor clay-court tournament in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nadal was a non-factor at Masters 1000 venues Indian Wells and Miami. Worst of all, he was shut out from European clay-court titles, and for only the second time in his superstar career, he did not win the French Open.
Summer came and went. Nadal added mid-majors Stuttgart and Hamburg, but he was hammered once again at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
The criticisms were increasingly frequent and stronger. Some former players questioned if Nadal’s career as a major contender was over. Were his legs now too slow to retrieve and defend? Was his serve and forehand so impotent that he could no longer control the baseline?
Nadal was tormented through the first half of 2015, according to his own comments with Sky Sport’s Jacquie Beltrao: "Especially during the first six months I was feeling very tired—every time I was playing and practising… Being honest with you, I suffered this year—especially for those months."
And then, slowly but noticeably, Nadal began to click during the time of the year that has historically been his weakest, the Asian tour and indoors season.
He did not win a title, but he did get to finals in Beijing (crushed by Novak Djokovic) and Basel (edged by Roger Federer), and along the way, he turned his ranking up from a low this year at No. 10 to the No. 5 ranking by November.
In just over a month, Nadal defeated Stan Wawrinka twice, Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov. He went 3-0 in the World Tour Finals, including wins over Wawrinka, Andy Murray and David Ferrer.
He eked out tough wins over big servers Milos Raonic, Kevin Anderson and Ivo Karlovis, not a bad accomplishment on fast or indoors surfaces. His footwork and forehand improved, and he spoke about being more relaxed and playing with confidence.
The story of Nadal’s 2015 was often a search for answers more than a celebration of results. There were more valleys than peaks, more adversity than at any time since his rise as a French Open champion in 2005.
The good news is that his health and knees did not betray him. He was able to fight his way back to competing with more ferocity. He was a bigger winner in the last few weeks than the preceding months.
Nadal went from having a failed year to getting by with our C-.
What kinds of improvements can Nadal make in tennis’ abbreviated off-season before January’s Australian Open comes calling?
There should be more work to sharpen his once-fabled topspin forehand. He will need to add more depth to his shots, and it is becoming increasingly important that he takes a page from his rival superstars and looks for quicker strikes to win points.
Technical improvements mean opportunistic ball-striking and more aggression in flattening out selected shots for more winners and pressure on his opponents. It could be simply adapting more of his late autumn indoors blueprint to the slower surfaces outdoors. The warmth and higher hops there will only give him more time to impose his game. The sun gives him more energy.
There will be challenges and obstacles. While Father Time keeps hovering over Nadal and his chief rivals, they will not be able to hold back all of the younger players forever. There are more players on tour who can hit with powerful strokes, and who might develop into stars sooner than later.
Will this be a year for someone else to crash into the ATP oligarchy, someone like Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev or even Bernard Tomic?
Will other second-tier veterans such as Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic be able to elevate their game?
Most of all, will anyone, let alone Nadal, be able to stop world No. 1 Djokovic? The Serbian is the elephant in the room when any other player thinks of only his own improvement. Yes, Nadal is very likely to play much better in 2016, but winning major titles or Masters 1000 championships means going through Djokovic.
Federer and Murray can attest to how difficult this has been, both of them having outstanding years but without the ultimate legacy hardware they sought, simply because Djokovic was far out in front in the all-important matches.
On the other hand, does it not stand to reason that Djokovic must slip at least somewhat, that he might come down like he did in 2012? If so, somebody will swoop in and pick up a few big titles. Why not Nadal?
Nadal might even now stand as the third favorite for winning the Australian Open behind Djokovic and Wawrinka, and in a dead heat with Andy Murray and Federer. He has a great opportunity to go deep with resurgent hopes, stronger belief and better timing with his game.
For sure, Nadal will throw everything he has into the spring. We can expect to see greater efforts at Indian Wells and Miami, and if all goes well, he could be the second contender on his beloved red clay—trailing only Djokovic, who will continue his Holy Grail quest for his elusive French Open title.
There are still believers, namely former Davis Cup teammate and friend Carlos Moya, who said, per the official ATP Champions Tour website: “I’m really sure he’s going to get over it next year. To get to number one again it could be tough because Novak is so strong, but for sure he will compete for Grand Slam titles again."
So do not write off Nadal just yet. He could return to prominence in 2016.