Rafael Nadal turns 25 years old today, and he has already racked up nine Grand Slam titles, five of which came at Roland Garros.
The Spanish star has a career 508-107 record, and he's the only player not named Roger Federer to have held the No. 1 ranking in the last seven years. Nadal captured the final three major tournaments of last season, jumping Federer in the rankings in the process.
His game used to be all defense, but he has added power and aggression to his repertoire. Add in a much-improved serve, and Nadal is now an all-court player with unbelievable athleticism and shot-making ability.
However, Nadal is playing in an era that overlaps possibly the greatest of all time in Roger Federer. Also, his of-age rivals are Novak Djokovic—who has won 43-straight matches—and Andy Murray. Nadal is in an era where the athleticism of each player is at its absolute highest. Almost every player that enters a major is gifted enough to go on a tear.
Right now, Nadal's mainstay is still the French Open. Five titles in six appearances and a 43-1 overall record at the tournament make him possibly the greatest big-time clay-court player of all time. If he wins his sixth French Open championship this year, he'll already have tied legendary Bjorn Borg for the most French Open titles in history.
He's currently in the semifinals of the 2011 French Open, but the other three players in the top four are there with him. Nadal squares off with Murray in the semifinals, with a win meaning a match with either Federer or Djokovic in the championship.
Here's a look at how much winning a sixth title in Paris would add to Nadal's career as a whole.
The top four seeded players in a Grand Slam rarely all make it to the semifinals of the tournament. In fact, this is only the 12th time it's happened since 1968. That means 12 times in 176 major tournaments.
Oddly enough, it occurred at Roland Garros, which is usually a tournament of great upsets and clay-court specialists making deep runs. However, this year the top four players happen to be some of the best clay-court players in the world.
Nadal has shown his appreciation for the red dirt. Federer has a French Open title, along with multiple smaller titles and finals appearances at Roland Garros. Djokovic and Murray are two of the best defensive players on tour, making clay a surface they succeed on.
If Nadal were to win this tournament, he will have gone through the best players in the world to do so. Nadal said it best with this statement on ATPworldtour.com about the Federer-Djokovic clash:
“The best player of the world today against the best player of history. It’s gonna be, in my opinion, a fantastic match.”
If Nadal gets past Murray in the semis, his reward is a match with one of these two. Winning this tournament would mean a lot immediately and even more down the road.
"No, seriously, I am not confident. I am not playing enough well to win this tournament."
This was said after Nadal's straight-set win over Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth round of the French Open. Usually that'd be a reason for celebration, but Nadal was looking far ahead at that point. Nadal seems burdened with the expectation to win every French Open.
He was able to take out the only person that has ever bested him in Paris by defeating Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals. Still, Nadal knows he has to keep improving if he's going to move on and potentially win it all.
However, the greatest players are defined as ones who can win when they're not playing at 100 percent. If Nadal is able to push through this draw and hoist the trophy, he'll shoot up the all-time rankings. He'll have double-digit Grand Slams, and he'll have either ended Djokovic's streak or beaten one of the all-time greats on a big stage yet again.
Winning the French Open is a huge accomplishment, but winning it when you're not at your best is historic.
Nadal's legacy took a huge hit when he lost to Soderling in the Round of 16 in the 2009 French Open.
The invincibility factor on the French Open courts no longer existed, and issues about Nadal's body were in full flight. Right then, Nadal knew he would need to become an all-court player to bring his legacy back to the elite level.
If Nadal had never beaten Federer in a Wimbledon final, his career wouldn't be the same. The fact that Federer has never defeated Nadal at Roland Garros is still an eyesore on Federer's résumé.
Winning the French Open in 2010 over Soderling helped to restore some of Nadal's swagger at Roland Garros, but it's going to take at least one more title—probably two—for Nadal to secure his No. 1 spot in Paris. Right now, Borg can still post an argument as the best clay-courter of all time.
By winning the championship this year, Nadal would be one step closer to standing alone as the best French Open champion to ever live.
Nadal and Federer have had the most respectable rivalry in men's tennis for the last decade. Although it seems like a passing of the guard to many outsiders, Nadal had to fight to take the reins of the ATP from Federer's grasp.
However, in terms of comparing careers right now, Federer has the giant edge. Yes, he has more years on tour, but Federer was winning three tournaments with great consistency during his prime. He has six Wimbledon titles, five US Open trophies and four Australian Open triumphs to go along with his lone championship at the French Open.
Federer also won five straight at both Wimbledon and the US Open. Nadal has played so many matches against Federer that his overall legacy will always be stacked up against that of the Swiss legend. Nadal may be on a better projected path, but many will argue that he's done more damage to his body than Federer did when he was younger.
Federer's prime came later than Nadal's, but how long will Nadal's last?
If he wants to inch even closer to Federer, he should hope that Federer takes out Djokovic in the semifinals so he can beat Federer in a fourth French Open final.
If Novak gets by Roger in the bottom half of the draw, he will become the No. 1 player in the world, regardless of what happens in the rest of the tournament.
This has to be slightly disheartening to Nadal, who has no control over his ranking. After losing in two straight clay-court finals to Djokovic, he has to hate the fact that he could win a Slam and see his ranking drop.
This would definitely take away from his legacy, knowing that he allowed a player to mow him down and make up a huge point deficit in just a few months. Nadal also likely wants to be the one to end Djokovic's streak, making him torn on the subject of who he'd rather see in the final.
As long as it's not John Isner serving at him in these next two matches, I'm sure Nadal will be content with any opponent.
Although Nadal would obviously be better off if he won in Paris, I firmly believe that a loss would do less damage to his legacy than a win would gain him.
Nadal has many more years left to win at the French Open, given that he can stay healthy for the better part of his twenties. His legacy needs other majors and to keep a winning record over players like Federer, Djokovic and potentially Murray.
The biggest knock on Federer's career is his losing record to Nadal and his lack of wins at Roland Garros. Pete Sampras also gets blasted for never taking home a French Open title.
Nadal needs to continue to win on other surfaces and collect Grand Slams and year-end No. 1 rankings. Maintaining a winning record over Federer shouldn't be too tough, taking into account his 16-8 head-to-head advantage.
However, Djokovic has won their last four encounters—all in finals—to narrow Nadal's edge over him to 16-11. Nadal needs to stay ahead of Djokovic and hope that this absolute tear has an end in the near future.
For now, Nadal will continue to be projected as a future all-time great, but even winning the 2011 French Open isn't going to send him vaulting upward.
What do you think a French Open championship will mean for Nadal's career?