“The tactic against Andy is to play very well,” Rafael Nadal said after facing Andy Murray on Wednesday at the ATP's World Tour Finals in London.

Mission—uncomplicated as it was—accomplished. Nadal did just about everything well in beating the world No. 2 by the surprisingly one-sided score of 6-4, 6-1. For the second straight match, Rafa timed his return well, breaking Murray four times. He passed well. He moved into the court and dictated play well. He hit his forehand well.

More impressive, though, was how well he hit two shots that he’s not known for, his volley and his backhand. Nadal was willing to trade ground strokes from his weaker side, and it paid off, and he was 11 of 13 at the net. The only thing that didn’t go so well for him was his serve; Nadal made just 51 percent of them. Fortunately for him, that was still better than Murray’s woeful 43 percent.

“I’m just happy the way that I played today,” Rafa said afterward, “happy the way that I was working. Just another step for me to be able to play at that level, against such a great player.”

Is it a surprise to hear Nadal, a 14-time Slam champ, sound so satisfied to beat a player that he has generally owned over the course of his career? Not these days: Rafa’s win over the world No. 2 was the biggest of his season, as far as his opponent's ranking goes. In their last meeting, in Madrid in May, Murray won easily.

Is it a surprise that with this victory, Nadal has already clinched a spot in the semifinals in London? Well, maybe a little. It may not sound like a major accomplishment for a player with his résumé, but Rafa has never been a lock to make the final four at the tour’s year-end event. Since 2005, he has withdrawn from the WTF four times, gone out in the round-robin phase twice, and compiled a distinctly sub-Nadalian 13-11 record.

Turning Another Corner

Turning Another Corner


But 2015 has been unlike any other season for Rafa. Success-wise, everything has been turned upside-down. In the past, he has traditionally emerged from slumps during the spring clay season; Monte Carlo was his firewall. In the past, the fall season has traditionally been a fallow period; since 2005, he has won just one title after the U.S. Open (Tokyo in 2010). While he hasn’t won a post-Open title this year, either, he has looked more at home down the homestretch than ever. Since bottoming out with his early loss to Fabio Fognini at Flushing Meadows, where he led by two sets and a break, Nadal has reached the final in Beijing, the semis in Shanghai, the final in Basel, the quarters in Paris, and now the semis (at least) in London. He also beat 909th-ranked Mikael Torpegaard of Denmark in a Davis Cup match just after the Open.

Will Torpegaard be able to tell his grandkids that he was the opponent who got Rafa started on his 2016 surge back to the top of the game? Possibly. As we know from watching Rafa in 2015, today's win is no guarantee that he has turned any corners for good. He’s turned a few already this year, only to turn back again.

As the ever-cautious Rafa said on Wednesday, “Just want to try to keep working the same way to keep confirming that I am in the completely right direction.”

According to Nadal, though, he has felt improvement since August. He says he first began to hit the ball better in practice in Montreal and New York, and the results came soon after. Now Nadal is talking about he actually likes fast courts better than slow ones.

Murray, for one, thinks a Rafa return to form in 2016 is more likely than not.

“He has won way more matches the last few months,” Murray said on Wednesday. “He’s come back from tight situations, which is a sign he’s getting back to where he wants to be. I’m sure, even now, beginning of next year, he’ll be playing at a very, very, high level again.”

In Paris and London, one thing that Nadal has had that he didn’t have for most of 2015 is his timing on hard-hit balls from his opponents. He has had it on his return on serve, and he has used it on his ground strokes the way he always used it in the past, to create offensive shots from defensive positions.

The other thing that Nadal has lacked this year is his old ironclad consistency. He’s missed more, especially from the forehand side. That’s partly a product of age. It’s not mentioned as much, but like everything else, rock-solid steadiness is tougher to keep up as you get older, and it's something that Rafa will likely have to work around in the future.

As he moves into his 30s—he'll turn the Big 3-0 next June—will we look back on Nadal’s 2015 the way we look back on Roger Federer’s 2010-2011 seasons: Not as a sign of immediate decline, but as the year when a great player learned to win without all the glorious physical gifts of youth?

If Rafa keeps executing his tactics—"to play very well," as he said on Wednesday—as thoroughly as he did against Murray, the answer should be yes.