Why this year’s French Open is the biggest of Rafael Nadal’s career

Rafael Nadal has plenty to prove at this year's French Open

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Rafael Nadal will go down in tennis history as one of the greatest clay court players the game has ever seen. The Spaniard has won a record nine French Open titles and often dominates the entire clay court season.

But much has changed for Nadal in the past two years. Nadal last won the French in 2014 and has not been the same player since. His body started to fail him, cracking under the pressure of age and his physical style of play. His 30th birthday, which often tends to mark the end of a tennis player’s best years, is coming up in June.

The results on the court have been severely lacking for Nadal. He has not reached a semifinal in his six Slam appearances since that last French Open win and has only advanced to the quarterfinals twice. The last time Nadal even advanced to the quarters of a Slam was in last year’s French, when Nadal lost to Novak Djokovic in straight sets. Nadal’s most recent set on Roland Garros soil was a 1-6 loss.

Nadal started 2016 on the wrong foot by losing in the first round of the Australian Open to Fernando Verdasco in five sets. He put together a decent clay court season this spring but was not dominant, as he dropped his final two clay court tournaments in the lead-up to Roland Garros. Nadal bowed out in the semifinals of the Mutua Madrid Open to Andy Murray and lost in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open to Djokovic.

It was the type of spring that was good enough to give Nadal backers some hope, but it fell short of quieting the critics who say that Nadal does not have much left in the tank in terms of his career. That means the pressure is on at the French.

It will not be an easy route to the final. Nadal is on Djokovic’s side of the draw and will meet him in the semis should they both make it that far, but beating Djokovic could be harder than ever. The Serbian has never won the French Open, the sole Slam left for Djokovic to conquer. After Djokovic just missed out on a title for two consecutive years, it’s clear he wants this win badly. The past few years have proven that when Djokovic wants something, he tends to get it.

Nadal, like everyone else, has struggled to wrest control away from Djokovic. The Serbian has won his past seven consecutive matches against Nadal dating back to that 2014 French Open. That win was Nadal’s only victory against Djokovic in their past 12 meetings.

If Nadal can overcome Djokovic and simply reach the final, the win over Djokovic might be a decent enough argument to say that Nadal still belongs in Top 4 consideration. But the best way for Nadal to silence the critics would be by winning the whole thing.

So can the King of Clay regain his throne after a blip last year, or is his reign as the most dominant force at Roland Garros over? And if Nadal is no longer the King of Clay and has not won any other Slams since 2013, is he really still one of the best players in the world?

Those questions show Nadal will not be playing for a record number of titles this time around; he is playing to prove he can still compete. That is what will make this the most important French Open of Nadal’s career.