Every player or team in any sport has a window of opportunity. Whether we're talking about team sports like the NFL, soccer (a.k.a football) and baseball or lone athlete sports like tennis, the window of opportunity is often short.
The span of a tennis player's career is dependent on many factors, but barring any career-ending injuries, the ages between 22 and 27 is considered to be their prime. It's the window in which they have the best chance to mark their career for greatness and win the titles that mean the most; that means the slams.
It's the point in their career when everything comes together. Their fitness, mental fortitude, work ethic and overall game on the court is at its absolute zenith. In short it's the time in which they are most capable of succeeding at the game's highest level.
Rafael Nadal is no different. The one difference is that he's been winning slam titles since a few days after he turned 19. That head start, plus the continual maturation of his game and the fact that he is currently sitting in the middle of the best years of his career at 24, means that this year is by far the most important of his career.
Some might think that last year was, but they are wrong. Last year was important because it allowed him to get back to the player he was a year earlier, when he was unquestionably at the top of his game. Together with Federer's dipping form, Nadal mercilessly destroyed everyone in his path and became a better player in the process. He also completed the career grand slam, but it still isn't the most important year in his career.
Here are 10 reasons why this year is so important.
While Nadal and Federer certainly still rule the roost, Djokovic and Murray have been making strides lately. Neither has won a slam recently (Murray not at all), but they have been getting close.
At some point, their level of play will eventually match or exceed the big two on the world's biggest stages. Given that will happen at some point, Nadal needs to take advantage while he still has a chance.
Much like Nadal showed up like a bright comet in Federer's field of vision, ready to challenge him, the next great champion is somewhere. It could be Murray, Djokovic or Del Potro. It could be Grigor "Baby Federer" Dimitrov or Bernard Tomic, who we have heard of. Possibly, it could be someone we have yet to hear about.
Regardless, there is a player out there with the burgeoning skills and desire to be the next great name mentioned in tennis' history book, and he could show up at any moment, just like a certain Swiss or Spaniard did.
Nadal has been pretty healthy as of late. Despite some minor (to us) pain a couple of times last year, it appears that Nadal's current medical method of dealing with his persistent tendinitis is working.
Blood spinning has seemingly become all the rage for athletes. Where once it was an almost unknown method, now it's being called revolutionary. It allows the healing process from various injuries to be cut down dramatically, and that includes tendinitis.
It's been given the OK by the ATP and now functions as one of Nadal's primary medical treatments.
After the Australian Open last year, Nadal was consulted about this procedure, and it has seemed to do the trick. Overall, his movement last year was about as good as it's ever been. As long as the treatments work, he needs to take advantage and use that good health to win the titles he needs.
Momentum is a wonderful thing. It allows you to play your best and intimidate others when you are at the top of your game and winning at an impressive route.
For the past nine months, Nadal has been on a tear of epic proportions, which may possibly continue after the Australian Open. It's important that he doesn't take the momentum he's carrying for granted and continues to use it to carry him through the tough matches ahead to further glory.
Nadal is currently entering the zenith of his career. His game, while continually improving, is nevertheless extremely impressive. Over the last several years, everything about his game has gone up a couple of notches, and in certain parts many notches.
He's at or near his physical peak. Combined with his extreme fitness, there are few players who can outlast Nadal in a five-set match.
The combination of everything means that the time is most ripe for Nadal to put a complete stranglehold on the ATP Tour.
Nadal's legacy as one of the game's greatest is assured, but how great and where exactly he is ranked is still to be determined because he is so young.
There is little doubt that his nine slams will become a much higher number, but what he is remembered for, and what people say about him long after he is gone, is something he works on every day.
Hopefully, Nadal will use the prime of his career to define it forever and imprint it in the minds of all of those naysayers who said he would never be more than a clay courter. He proved him wrong and probably will until the day he calls it quits.
First off, I'm not saying that Nadal will match or break Federer's record, but if he's going to ever make a real run at it, this year is it.
Last year is what makes this possible. It put him one slam away from double digits, and gave him the possibility to be within Federer's reach within a year. If Nadal wins three or four slams this year, and Federer does not win any, Nadal could conceivably tie or break Federer's slam record of 16 in 2012.