Rafael Nadal hoping to figure out Fabio Fognini problem

Sometimes, it seems that unbeknownst to Rafael Nadal that he's starring in a remake of the popular comedy of the endlessly recurring day, "Groundhog Day."

Before this week, Nadal was last seen hobbling away from the US Open, his hopes dashed in the third round in the most unexpected way. He blew a two-sets-to-none lead for the first time in his career, losing in five sets to Fabio Fognini.

It was the third time this year that the enigmatic, emotional Italian with the asymmetrical game had foiled Nadal's attempt to build traction in his herky-jerky comeback.

Fognini will get a chance to make it four bad days for Nadal in the China Open semifinals.

Welcome back, Rafa. Nothing has changed. Or so it must seem.

Nadal's problem is much larger, and more repetitive, than those disappointments inflicted by 5-foot-10 Fognini. Treading water down at No. 8 in the rankings, Nadal's entire year has been a series of hopes rekindled, only to be dashed, real signs of progress shattered by shocking, almost amateurish lapses of nerve leading to losses. Time and again, Nadal raised hopes with a solid win, only to be followed by disappointing loss and an analysis of how things went awry.

Nadal has won just three tournaments this year, none of the a Grand Slam or even a Masters 1000. Going into this week's event in Beijing, he was a lackluster 45-15.

The postmortems all year have had an depressingly familiar theme. As Nadal told the press at the US Open, when asked if he had contemplated a change of coaches: "If I have nerves, is not the problem of my coach. If I have nerves, is the problem of myself. If I am playing bad, is the same."

And then there's Fognini -- the kind of guy who turn anyone into a nervous nelly. The simple odds of Nadal and Fognini meeting five or more times in one year were outlandishly long. (Nadal won their other previous 2015 meeting, in the Hamburg Open final.)

Nadal is trying to be cool with his latest assignment, even though it must irk him to have to come up against such a tough ask after a month off -- and with just two matches under his belt in Asia.

He gave little away to reporters in Beijing on Friday.

"If I am able to play my best tomorrow, I am going to have my chances [against Fognini]," Nadal said. "If not, it is going to be tough. It's simple. Sport is simple. The winner is the player who plays better. Fognini played better in the three matches that he beat me."

Yes, but hasn't it all been just a little weird?

Fognini has become kryptonite for Nadal, even though the Italian pretty much harmless to Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who are a combined 10-0 against him. You can see why. The 28-year-old Fognini has never been anywhere near a Grand Slam final, and he's been as far as a Masters 1000 semi just once.

Motivation, or lack thereof, has always been a big issue for Fognini. That adds a cruel note of irony to his mastery of the diligent Nadal. But Nadal brings out the best in Fognini for technical reasons, and in that sense, Fognini is an excellent barometer for the true state of Nadal's game.

At the US Open, Nadal made some choice observations about the relationship between confidence and tactics. He said, after his second-round win: "When you are hitting a forehand, and you don't have the tempo, you want to hit the forehand here -- and you hit the forehand there. It's because you don't have the mentally relax. You are not enough relaxed in your mind to do what you used to do."

In other words, feeling nervous affects how hard you hit the ball, how much spin you apply and where your shot lands. The less confident you are, the more likely you leave the ball short or fail to penetrate the court or hit good angles. Combined with the increased temptation (in Nadal's case) to back off the baseline and play defense, the mindset is a recipe for disaster against either elite, confident players -- or certain kinds of stylists.

Fognini falls into the latter category. He may not have the power, discipline, will or confidence of a Djokovic or Federer, but he has the ability to take the ball on the rise, exploit the angles, keep the ball low and take full advantage of a player who's not comfortable coming forward into the court.

Given time, Fognini can jerk a guy around. Given time, he'll move in and take control -- like he does against Nadal.

The shock of the US Open result tended to obscure one important detail: Fognini played amazing tennis that day. Nadal said so, but, of course, everyone thought he was just saying that.

Fognini's history with Nadal certainly helped him attain and sustain that level, but this is a new day -- although it may not seem that way to Nadal anymore.