For most professional tennis players, a 56-18 record, 3 titles and over $3 million in prize money is a pretty good year. If you're name is Rafael Nadal, such a year causes people to panic and wonder if your career is beginning to wind down. Obviously Nadal's year hasn't been what we've come to expect from the 14 time grand slam champion, but it's hardly been the train wreck some people have made it out to be. More importantly, Nadal is playing some of his best tennis as the year winds down, and this bodes well for the Spaniard in 2016.
Nadal clearly struggled with his confidence as he returned to the tour at the beginning of the year. Injuries slowed him down at the end of 2014, and he didn't begin 2015 in his usual form. He got rolled by Berdych at the Australian Open, lost to Fognini multiple times, and got beaten handily by Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka at different times during the clay court season.
More concerning than the results themselves was that he simply didn't look like Nadal. His timing on his usually devastating forehand was off, and it looked like he mis-hit more forehands this year than he had in the previous 10 years combined. As his confidence faded he stopped hitting out on a lot of forehands, and at times appeared to merely be guiding the ball through the court.
Even without his confidence Nadal managed to grind out what may end up being a top 5 season (he just moved up to fifth in the points race). While it wasn't what we're used to, he did make the semis of
Monte Carlo, finals
of Madrid, won Hamburg
(a 500 level event), finals of Beijing, semis of Shanghai
and finals of Basel. Nadal traditionally struggles in the post- US
Open Asian and European indoor swing, but has been solid over the last few
tournaments. His forehand looked to be
returning to form, and this should be worrisome for the rest of the tour.
Nadal has always rebounded strong from injuries, layoffs and slumps. He probably won't do so to the same extent as before (don't expect him to win 3 slams in 2016). But it's hard to rule out the possibility that Nadal returns to number two or three in the world. Djokovic has clearly passed him by, but with a good training block in the off-season there's no reason Nadal can't rejoin the likes of Murray and Federer. At some point his body probably will break down, and it's hard to see him going strong into his mid-thirties like Federer. However, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a couple of great years left. If he can continue to end his year on a high note, a confident and healthy Nadal heading into 2016 could be a scary proposition for the rest of the tour.