Why this could be a 'make it or break it' few weeks for Rafael Nadal

The step in Rafael Nadal's long journey back from the mental dumps and physical injury begins this week on the same road that first led him to glory, the one composed of eye-pleasing, meticulously groomed smooth red clay.

The "King of Clay" has been the Emperor of April, winning 17 of his 69 titles in what has become his most productive month. He's won two April events nine times apiece, at Monte Carlo, where he won his opening match Wednesday, a tough 6-0, 5-7, 6-3 win against Kyle Edmund, and Barcelona.

Nadal, who hasn't been trouble-free for any appreciable length of time since the end of 2013, believes that he's finally ready to dominate this part of the season once again. But he's doing his best to downplay expectations.

"If I play well, I will have chances to fight, to win, otherwise I won't," Nadal said in an interview with Spanish television network IB 3 last Friday, when asked if he was "dreaming" of winning the French Open a 10th time. "It's simple, it's not about dreaming to win or not."

Dreaming is for kids and prohibitive longshots. Taking ownership of your wins and losses, facing your shortcomings as well as celebrating your strengths, is what players like Nadal do. He's a 30-year-old veteran who owns 14 Grand Slam singles trophies. And he's rolling into an April filled with opportunity but inflated with pressure.

Nadal is 20-5 this year, tied for the most wins on the ATP Tour with Jack Sock. That record includes three finals, including one at the year's first Grand Slam. But he hasn't claimed a title.

Most great players have said that winning big is all about little -- doing the little things right, paying attention to the little details, winning a few key points or even just lifting your game a hair at select, fleeting moments. Nadal, a scrupulous worker, has always taken care of the little details diligently. It's those subtle champion's responses at critical moments that have remained just beyond his grasp.

"I think I am close to what I need to be," Nadal said falling to Roger Federer in the final of the Miami Masters. "I am at a very high level of tennis, and I believe I am ready to win titles. I already played three finals this year, losing three times with a player [Federer] that didn't lose a match -- only one match that he never would lose in normal conditions in Dubai, and that's it."

The three losses to Federer are understandable. The Swiss has discovered and exploited new dimensions of his game, at least on the court surfaces that reward aggressive play. But those two other losses by Nadal were to Milos Raonic (Brisbane quarterfinals) and Sam Querrey (Acapulco). They are a reminder of Nadal's darker days.

For periods in 2014 and 2015, when Nadal unexpectedly appeared to be in decline, his major problem was the jitters. He suddenly got cold feet exactly at those times when, in the past, the soles of his shoes caught fire and he ran his opponents to ground. It was a simple, if painful, problem, a mind game with just one player.

As Nadal said to the media at the 2015 US Open: "If I have nerves, is not the problem of my coach. If I have nerves, is the problem of myself."

The anxiety that caused Nadal's backhands to fall short and his forehand to lose its lethal sting has been banished like a bad virus. He now swings freely during big points, strokes the risky placement when it's warranted. But Nadal still hasn't recovered that champion's air of command. He doesn't elevate his game that extra smidgen when it's most needed.

Nadal will have to recover that ability this month if he hopes to return, like Federer, to his peak status.

Alternatively, Nadal could carry on and remain comfortably entrenched in the top 10 for the foreseeable future. But the King of Clay accolade will have a hollow ring if Nadal doesn't crank it up a notch. He can't leave the court in April three or four times declaring that he felt good about his game, but the other guy, "He played great."

Nadal's job is to make sure the other guy is unable to play great.

That's the most important thing for Nadal to keep in mind now that he's healthy and striking the ball comfortably off both sides again. It's a surprisingly big psychological step, because merely hitting the ball well again in big matches after a slump is such a great accomplishment.

For Nadal, there's no better or more important a time to take that last big step than in April and May on that red highway to glory.