French Open 2012: Does Rafa Nadal Need This Title to Avoid a Season Spiral?

Kevin Pacelli@kjp0205Correspondent IMay 17, 2012

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 05:  Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates match point during the men's singles final match between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2011 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The sport of tennis is such a mental game that even the smallest idea of failure in a player's mind can completely throw off his or her game. Even the best players in the world face this downfall in times of disappointment.

When you take a player like Rafael Nadal, who has been the clear king of Roland Garros for quite some time now, and tell him that he will be facing tough competition in this year's French Open, it is definitely going to add a lot of pressure for the upcoming event. That competition may come in the form of his top rivals, or it may come from threatening dark horses.

As one of the greats, it his his job to step up to the task and embrace it with force. But what happens if he fails to do so? One thing is for sure—it will not be good at all for his mental game, and his season will suffer.

Since his first in 2005, Rafa has claimed an astounding six French Open titles, being one of the favorites going into all of them. Last year, the prospect of battling red-hot Novak Djokovic in the finals posed a serious obstacle before a strong Roger Federer took the Serb down in the semis.

This year, the situation is arguably even more ominous for Nadal. For one thing, Djokovic is once again a threat, having won seven of their last eight encounters (2-1 on clay in that time). On top of that, Roger Federer is playing much better tennis than he was last season, with two 2012 Masters titles under his belt already. A healthy Andy Murray is always dangerous, too.

Let's not forget those outside the "big four" who may give Rafa trouble prior to the semifinals. Rising Canadian star Milos Raonic's monster serve nearly took out Fed early in his path to the Madrid title, and experienced Top 10 players, including Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro, are at the top of their games.

If any of these players manage to knock out the defending champion this year, it will be a devastating blow to his 2012 season, no matter how late the departure. At this point in his career, anything less than a title on the Roland Garros courts is considered a French Open failure.

Should the event turn out this way, we can expect to see little production from Nadal as the year goes on. He will have exited the clay season with only two or three titles to show for it (Barcelona and Monte Carlo, and possibly Rome) and be entering two more Slams in which he will have to fight to overthrow his Serbian superior.

The French Open is basically the last time in 2012 that Rafa Nadal will be in his comfort zone. He is currently playing great clay court tennis for the most part, so I would say that he is the definite favorite going into the Roland Garros campaign. If he does win it, he will be able to play out the rest of the season with confidence, and even hope to take another Slam at WImbledon or Flushing Meadows.

Because any other result will have a polar opposite effect, though, Rafa and his fans better hope that he can live up to expectations.