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.