The Parisians sometimes call Rafael Nadal "The Ogre of the Clay," which makes the winner of nine French Open titles sound like something out of Grimm's fairy tales, terrifying those who dare to set foot on his turf.
And yet, for much of the past year, both in the French capital and elsewhere on the tennis map, the Majorcan didn't seem as scary as he usually is, or as capable of loading balls with topspin and speed. In short, the ogre seemed less ogrish.
Nadal is still the greatest clay-court player of all time, having already won La Coupe des Mousquetaires more than anyone else. But the question that will be asked again and again between now and the last whippy forehand of his 2016 French Open: Does Nadal have it in him to score another title at Roland Garros?
Like the clay that clings to his shoes, the doubt about Nadal's prospects in Paris is hard to wash away. It wasn't just that 2015 was the first year in a decade in which he didn't win a Grand Slam. It's also that he didn't win any clay-court tournaments during the build-up to Roland Garros. And while Nadal can win on all surfaces -- he is among a select few to have completed the Career Grand Slam -- it is his success on clay that tends to define him as a tennis player.
There are two possibilities for Nadal in Paris, each extreme: One is that he will become the first man to reach double-figure titles at the same Grand Slam, and the other is that his legend will be diminished by a second year of failure, following last year's quarterfinals defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic. Nadal's only previous loss at the tournament had been to Sweden's Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
There were some encouraging signs for Nadal in the last few weeks of 2015 as he had some decent results on hard courts. And in a recent conversation with ESPN.com, coach Toni Nadal suggested his nephew could triumph on the hard courts of the Australian Open.
But it will likely be Roland Garros that determines whether Nadal's season is a triumph.
Whatever happens in Paris this year, we are never going to go back to the time when Nadal was the undisputed monarch of the clay. Too much has happened since then, not least of which was the full flowering of Djokovic's talent. The Serbian will be determined to win his first French Open title to complete his Career Grand Slam. Stan Wawrinka's victory last year will give him hope that he can triumph again, and by taking Djokovic so close in the last four in 2015, Andy Murray demonstrated that he has it in him to one day be the French Open champion.
Other ATP players with something to prove in 2016
There were periods last season when the Bulgarian "just felt down." Such negative thoughts are understandable. After all, 2015 was supposed to be the year Dimitrov, having reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, would propel himself into the stratosphere. Instead, he regressed, failing to reach a major quarterfinal last season. Dimitrov fell in the first round of the French Open and the second round of the US Open. He almost finished the year outside the top 30.
Every microphone and camera angle will be tracking what Kyrgios says and does. In the opening weeks and months of the season, Kyrgios will have to show both that his tennis is progressing and that he can behave himself on the court. How will he cope with the knowledge that running up $5,000 in fines at ATP tournaments (the Australian Open, an ITF event, is excluded) will trigger a 28-day ban as a result of the insults he directed at Wawrinka last August?
The Canadian must prove that he can stay healthy and that he can consistently have an impact at the majors. Much was expected of Raonic after he made his first Grand Slam semifinal at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, but after reaching the last eight of the 2015 Australian Open, he missed last season's French Open because of injury and only progressed as far as the last 32 at Wimbledon and the US Open. While Raonic has lost the services of Ivan Ljubicic, who has joined Roger Federer's team, he won't be without expert guidance after turning to Carlos Moya, a former world No. 1 and French Open champion.
As Bob put it, "the stars didn't align" for them at the majors in 2015. For the first time since 2004, they went an entire calendar year without a Grand Slam. They are also no longer the world's leading doubles pair after the Dutch-Romanian pairing of Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau took that spot. Can the most accomplished doubles team in history -- they have 16 majors -- go back to winning the sport's biggest prizes? And can they regain their status at the top of the rankings?