After setting the record for the most consecutive years (10) taking home at least one major per season, 2015 has without question been a down year for Rafael Nadal.
The fact that Nadal did not win the French Open in 2015 speaks for itself.
This is the tournament that bears the Spaniard’s stamp, and with 9 titles in 10 years, it’s entirely possible that no player will ever do better at a single Slam venue – ever.
While Nadal doesn’t get a lot of credit for being consistent, his 10-year streak with at least one major final says otherwise. Especially when one considers the physical obstacles that have stood in his way.
Born with foot problems that translated into knee problems, Nadal has arguably gone light years beyond any reasonable expectations that could have been placed upon him. He has raised 14 major titles so far in his career, second only to Roger Federer, who has faced far fewer injury problems in his long career.
Is it rational to believe after battling wrist, back, and appendix problems through the second half of 2014, that Nadal wouldn’t at some point succumb to the wear and tear of his physical style of play?
What’s probably more amazing is that Nadal didn’t have a down year earlier – amidst the streak.
Nadal’s best result at a major in 2015 was the quarterfinals at Roland Garros where he lost to the 2015 player of the year Novak Djokovic. Had Nadal faced anyone other than Djokovic at that time he probably would have made the final – and that’s playing some of the worst tennis of his career!
Playing back into form, which has taken a bit longer than anyone anticipated, Nadal appeared to lose some of the mental edge that has propelled him so far in the sport. That same determination and never-die approach that lifted Rafa to victory so many times against Roger Federer (23-11 overall, 9-2 Slams) seemed to evaporate as quickly as his ranking points.
The culmination of the Spaniard’s struggles seemed to manifest themselves at the 2015 US Open when Nadal suffered his first-ever loss in a Grand Slam match when leading by two sets to none (151-0 before that match). There’s no doubt the loss was tragic, but Fabio Fognini also played the match of his life – it wasn’t as if Nadal’s embarrassed himself on court.
Fast forwarding to the present, that loss now looks like the low point for Nadal as his results and ranking have steadily improved through the indoor hard court swing, which has traditionally been Nadal’s weakest part of the tour.
Instead of getting mired in his negative results, Nadal simply did what he has always done – he went back to work. And since the US Open, Nadal has actually strung together some excellent results – especially as compared to earlier in the season.
In this last three tournaments, Nadal has reached two finals and one semifinal. This all on fast hard-court surfaces (2 of the 3 indoor) that have never been an ideal fit for his grinding wear-you-down style of play.
The fact that Nadal took Federer the distance in front of the Swiss players home crowd on an indoor court recently in Basel speaks volumes to Nadal’s improvement over the first half of 2015.
Indoor hard court is basically the only surface where Federer can consistently beat Nadal, so the fact that the Spaniard kept it close in Switzerland was actually a great result. Indoor, Nadal is now 1-5 against Federer in his career.
However, the outdoor hard court (including Grand Slams) head-to-head record is heavily skewed toward the Spaniard at 8-2. Were that final in Basel played on any surface but indoor hard court, it’s not difficult to imagine that Nadal would have come out on top.
And that’s in a year where many think Federer is outperforming and Nadal is facing questions about retirement.
Looking forward, Nadal can take a lot of confidence from his recent run on tour. While he may not yet be back near his highest level, there can be no doubt that he is trending in the right direction.
When 2016 rolls around, Nadal will be installed as the favorite to win his 15th major at the French Open. With 9 titles in 11 tries, there’s simply no other player that can displace him at the top of that particular mountain.
It wasn’t that long ago that Nadal was also cruising on outdoor hard court. Minus an unlucky injury during the 2014 Australian Open final, Nadal might have stacked two consecutive titles on that surface together after winning the 2013 US Open final against Novak Djokovic.
With all the heartache Rafa has endured Down Under, the Australian Open winner’s trophy would probably mean more to him than another title at Roland Garros in 2015.
If Nadal does enter that mental fortress he lived in over the 10 years preceding this one, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be the first since Jim Courier in 1992 to win both Grand Slams to start 2016.
Nadal’s star is ascending once again, and that is an amazing development for fans of tennis.
There’s arguably been no player in the history of the sport that has forced his opponents to give as much on court as Rafael Nadal.
Lucky for us it’s looking pretty likely that the Man from Mallorca gets back on track in 2016 and does that once again.