Rafael Nadal is, by most accounts, having the worst season of his career. So why can’t we stop talking about him?

One obvious reason is that there’s not much else to talk about right now. Serena Williams is done for the year, Roger Federer is done for the week, Novak Djokovic is too good to make his matches interesting. Last night in Shanghai, the world No. 1, seemingly offended that Bernie Tomic pushed him to a tiebreaker in the first set, ripped through the second one 6-1. Djokovic has now won 15 matches and 18 sets in a row. His lead in the ranking-points race looks like it could last until he turns 30.

Making, and Taking, His Own Luck

Making, and Taking, His Own Luck


That leaves the drama, for the moment, to Rafa. The tennis world has spent most of 2015 waiting for him to turn the proverbial corner with his game, and become the Nadal of old. Instead, his season has been a series of turn-backs. He followed a title in Buenos Aires in February with an ugly loss to Fernando Verdasco in Miami the next month. Two weeks after winning another tournament, on grass in Stuttgart, he was drummed out of Wimbledon in the second round. And a month after recording the most promising win of his season, over Fabio Fognini in the Hamburg final, he squandered a two-set lead to Fognini at the U.S. Open.

Now Rafa has reached another promising stage in his season, maybe the most promising of all. After making his first hard-court final of the year, in Beijing, he’s in the semis of a hard-court Masters 1000, in Shanghai, for the first time in 2015. The fact that Nadal noted this statistic after his blowout win over Stan Wawrinka on Friday shows that he’s taking his progress one small step at a time, and finding the positives wherever he can. Despite having already made 55 semifinals at Masters 1000s, and having won a record 27 of those events, he sounds as if he’s just had a career breakthrough.

We’ll see what happens in his 56th Masters semi, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Saturday. But this week has felt different for Nadal. It began, in his opening match against Ivo Karlovic, with his energy level. Rafa is rarely, if ever, sluggish or less than totally committed, but in this match he was even more psychologically proactive than normal. That was partly because of his opponent; Dr. Ace’s serve may be the most demoralizing shot in tennis, so Nadal must have felt that he needed to go the extra mile to stay upbeat. Even then, Karlovic still pushed the match to a third-set tiebreaker. If he hadn’t double-faulted at 4-4 in that breaker, he may have won, Rafa would be long gone from Shanghai, and we wouldn’t be having a conversation about his resurgence right now.

But that’s the dirty secret of confidence: Often you need a little help getting there.

It’s like an ad for an entry-level position that requires three years of experience; if that's what's needed, how are you supposed to get a job in the first place? The same goes for confidence. They say you can’t win without it; but they also say that only winning breeds it. Which comes first?

Sometimes, a stroke of good fortune goes your way, you win a match, and suddenly you feel like you can do it again. Now you know that the Gods, at least, aren’t against you. This isn’t to say that Nadal didn’t play a strong match against Karlovic (watch this video to see how well he was returning his serve). But he also didn’t play badly against Fognini at the U.S. Open; the Italian just didn’t give him anything down the stretch.

Making, and Taking, His Own Luck

Making, and Taking, His Own Luck

Rafa knows there's only so much he can control, especially against Karlovic. Unlike many tennis champions, he has never had the blind, bedrock confidence that he's destined to win any match in which he plays well.

"I had the control of the emotions," he said afterward, "I have control of the nerves. I had control of the point a lot of the times. But I won by one point at the end for a double-fault for him, and with the good points of me with my serve in the tiebreak."

Either way, Nadal took that double-fault from Karlovic, won the next two points and the match, and hasn’t looked back since. In the third round, against another monster server, Milos Raonic, Nadal’s forehand was sharper than it has been for most of this year. It was even better against Wawrinka in the quarters. Toni Nadal said this week that the forehand is the shot that Rafa has been missing this season; as of today, he appears to have found it. For most of 2015, he has hit it with a tentative loop, from well behind the baseline, with so much safety that it becomes unsafe. Against Wawrinka, Nadal hit with flatter purpose, from farther up in the court.

Just as important, though, was a stat that commentator Robbie Koenig cited about Nadal in Shanghai: He hasn’t missed a first serve on any of the break points that he has saved. Up a set and 2-0 in the second, Nadal allowed Wawrinka his first break chance of the match. Rafa has struggled to close sets and matches in 2015; was he going to struggle with the lead again? This time he made his first serve, and watched as Wawrinka drilled a backhand just wide. Again, fortune was on Nadal’s side; Stan didn’t miss any of those backhands in the French Open final this year. But on Friday the Swiss was coming off a late-night, three-hour win over Marin Cilic, and his edge was decidedly dulled. Wawrinka finished with 14 winners and 34 unforced errors.

Nadal, rightly, still focused on the positives in his own play, and in the results he’s seen this week. He knows that you need a little luck—you need to make your own, and you need to take what your opponent gives you. Yes, confidence is about believing that you can take your forehand early and hit it past your opponent. But it’s also about believing in the more nebulous concept of "destiny." You control what you can control—the emotions, the nerves, the points—and trust that the things you can't control won't go against you in the end. As I said, for many champions, this bedrock confidence comes naturally, but that's not always the case with the ever-realistic Rafa. He needs proof. At this stage in his career, the only moral victory is winning.