After a year of notable setbacks, Rafael Nadal may begin the 2016 season with an opportunity to prove he can still compete with the very best in tennis. In the first week of the ATP Tour calendar, both Nadal and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic will hit the courts at Doha in the Qatar Open. And, as the top two seeds, a meeting in the final next Sunday is a distinct possibility.
Nadal will aim to take his first step toward setting up that clash when he gets his tournament underway on Tuesday against fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta. Nadal won his only previous meeting with the current world No. 69 last year. Should he do so again, his biggest challenges on the way to the final are set to be Italian sixth seed Andreas Seppi as well as another compatriot in veteran David Ferrer.
The 29-year-old will certainly be hoping to improve on his performance at the same tournament last year, when he crashed out at the first round to German journeyman Michael Berrer. Yet, while back in Doha, Nadal is in a very different place than he was 12 months ago.
That defeat in Qatar proved to be just the start of a season to forget for the 14-time Grand Slam champion. It was the first year since 2004 that Nadal had failed to land a Grand Slam title, and most painfully of all he saw his domination of the French Open ended in emphatic fashion by Djokovic. Having spent the early months of the year recovering from an injury-plagued 2014, Nadal got physically fit but struggled to recover his confidence.
Yet the end of the year witnessed signs of recovery. As well as reaching the final in Beijing and Basel, he recorded convincing wins over Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka in the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals. He has also kicked off 2016 in fine fashion, winning an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi on Saturday after beating Ferrer and Milos Raonic.
“It’s a great way to start the new season, winning against two of the best players in the world, without a doubt, and playing at the right level … a very good level of tennis,” he said afterward, according to Abu Dhabi publication, The National.
“Last year was a tough year for me mentally, but when I was able to fix my mental problems, I started to play much better and I am feeling good now. I feel ready for action, ready for the competition. We will see if I am able to keep doing it for the rest of the season.”
Getting the better of Djokovic, though, is a very different proposition. The Serbian won all four of their meetings in 2015 without losing a set to take the most-played rivalry in the history of men’s tennis all-square at 23 wins apiece.
Djokovic was far and away the dominant player in 2015, winning three Grand Slam title and only losing the other one in the final to Wawrinka at Roland Garros. And he started this year where he finished off, beating German Dustin Brown 6-2 6-2 in less than 52 minutes in the first round in Doha on Monday.