2016 Preview: ATP No. 5 Rafael Nadal

Nadal, so steady over the last decade, is now the game’s biggest question mark. He’s the player who can shift the current dynamic on tour the most, and do the most damage to the hopes and chances of the other top players.

Nadal wasn’t much of a threat at the big events in 2015; for the first time since 2004,  back when he was 18, he failed to reach the semifinals of a major or the final of a Masters event. Yet the three-time year-end No. 1 is still a combined 76–43 against Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. Only Djokovic has at least a .500 record against Nadal; the Spaniard holds an overwhelming head-to-head edge against the rest of the Top 5.  
The question now is whether, as he turns 30, Nadal can regain that edge. Historically, he has always followed a downturn with another run to No. 1. In the past, though, that turnaround typically took a matter of months—when the clay season rolled around, Nadal’s game came around with it. But that’s not how it went in 2015. This time the struggles—with confidence, and his forehand—went on all year. He even lost a two-set lead at a major for the first time, at the US Open.  
Yet Nadal saved his best for last—he reached two semifinals and two finals after Flushing Meadows—and his rivals say they expect that to continue in 2016. They’ve lost to him enough to know.

Nadal is one of the game’s all-time greats. It took him longer than usual to find his form in 2015, but he located it in the end. In the past, his best has always been good enough to dominate. A fourth year-end No. 1 finish isn’t out of the question.

The fear is that 2015 was the first sign of his inevitable slowing. Nadal has always relied on his strength, speed and stamina, and none of those things are going to last forever. Last year, he appeared to turn a corner with his game half a dozen times, only to turn right back around again.

The complexion of the men’s game in 2016, and the fates of its other top players, hinges on Nadal’s form.

For more 2016 season previews, click here.