Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal returns a ball against Novak Djokovic during the Men's Single Final match on day 9 of the 2015 China Open at the China National Tennis Centre. Getty

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic earned a straight-sets victory over Rafael Nadal in the China Open final this past weekend, winning the tournament for the sixth time. While the loss goes down as another missed opportunity for Nadal to claim a championship, there were some encouraging signs for the No.7 player in the world.

After ranking among tennis’ best players for the last decade, Nadal hasn’t performed like a top player in 2015. It’s the first year since 2004 that he hasn’t won a single Grand Slam tournament, and didn’t even advance beyond the quarterfinals in any of them. He was beaten by Djokovic 6-2 6-2 in what was seemingly an easy victory for the sport’s top player, but the win might have been tougher to come by than the numbers would indicate.

"The scoreline, especially in the first set, doesn't indicate the real battle that we had on the court," Djokovic said.

"I'm aware of the fact that very few points can decide a winner of the matches I play against the biggest rivals, and Rafa is definitely one of them.”

Nadal reached the final, something he hasn’t done at a tournament since he won in Germany more than two months ago. Djokovic had his way with Nadal, but the consensus top player has trounced his opponents this year, winning three Grand Slams and reaching the finals at Roland Garros. Yet, Nadal was able to extend some rallies and keep Djokovic on his toes. On multiple occassions, it was Nadal who ripped clean ground strokes with Djokovic having to fight back to keep the point alive. It was a small victory for a tennis legend who may be slowing returning to form.

"I was competing very well in the first set. So seriously, I am happy the way I played. I am happy the way that I am improving," Nadal said.

"Every match is important for me. All improvements are important, even if they are the small ones. I felt during this week I improved a lot of things. I take a lot of positive things from the week. That's very important for me.”

The victory gives Djokovic seven wins over Nadal in their last eight meetings. Nadal hasn’t beaten his rival away from clay since the 2013 U.S. Open.

Even though he failed to win the French Open for just the second time in 11 years, the “King of Clay” had the most success on his favorite surface this year, winning two championships and losing in the finals to Andy Murray at another clay tournament. In Beijing, Nadal was able to make it all the way to the finals on hard court, something he hadn’t done all year.

But the comeback trail might be a long one for the Spaniard. Nadal, who reportedly was nursing a foot injury in the second set, still appears to be a long way from matching his highest level, having been ranked as the world’s No.1 player as recently as last year.