Sometimes it is helpful to think of Rafael Nadal as the Black Knight from Monty Python. Unless he is completely broken — and in fact, even if he is — you sense he is not going to write himself off as a force. Neither, perhaps, should the rest of us.
For Nadal, this year could have been one of those that every athlete eventually encounters. Where reality encounters expectations and towers above it. Where, in the mind nothing is impossible but in the body less is possible. Where, after years of leaving bits of the body and soul on courts across the world, there is little left to leave.
It could have been, but this being Nadal, a man whose career has been built on not knowing when to stop, it has not been. Not yet anyway.
Admittedly, for much of the year it really did feel like Nadal might have worn himself out. The numbers are not pretty. His 61-20 record constitutes his lowest winning percentage on the circuit since 2004, and the losses are the most he has suffered in a single year.
Not only did he not win at least one major in the year for the first time in a decade, he did not even reach the last four of one.
But ahead of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC), which starts on Thursday, a customary stop for him as he begins a new season, Nadal is still standing.
“I was injury-free this past 2015 and that is good news for me,” he told The National in an email interview.
“Unfortunately I didn’t have a good year in terms of results and needed to make some adjustments to my game.
“Hopefully 2016 will be better since I believe I ended well the last part of the 2015.”
That he did, which is why you never count him out.
Indeed, as he ended with wins over Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka at the ATP World Tour Finals, it was tempting to buy in to his uncle and coach Toni Nadal’s optimism.
Toni is confident Nadal can win majors this year. Nadal is less certain, though in the general way that nobody is ever sure of anything in life and few sportsmen will ever openly predict triumphs.
“I don’t think anyway it is ever certain to win a slam,” he said. “It is not that easy and many things can happen during the two weeks of the tournament. Certainly if you are playing good tennis and feeling well, the chances increase and the confidence is also a factor. But I was never sure of it and won a few.”
What he is certain about is that, at no stage over the last year has he contemplated the end, and is not going to at any point in the near future. It makes sense because he is still six months shy of turning 30, but less so given how old that body must feel some days.
“My motivation is still there,” he said. “I love the game, I love to compete and I love what I do. It’s my passion.
“So far, so good.
“I haven’t thought about [my last season] for a minute. Not because I had a bad season everything is over. I never thought about it like this. The goal [for 2016] is to be able to be ready to win and to be in that position. To have those chances to arrive in finals.”