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Rafael Nadal again aiming to knock Roger Federer off his throne

Rafael Nadal spent the past two months establishing dominance over the ATP World Tour while tempering expectations that he is thinking about his chances to win on the red clay of Roland Garros.

But that doesn't mean we can't gaze beyond and ask, "What if?" And it turns out, there's a tennis hot potato waiting to be lobbed around in the event Nadal does what most pundits expect: win the French Open title.

Such a win would give Nadal 15 major titles, second only to Roger Federer, the all-time leader with 18. And suddenly the greatest-of-all-time debate is prime fodder again.

"If you think about the Australian Open, if that fifth set goes to Rafa instead of Roger, you have Nadal going into this Roland Garros just two titles behind Federer instead of four," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said.

For that reason, Federer's win in Australia may have been, as he claimed, the second most important of his career (after the 2009 French Open, where Federer won his lone major on clay and completed his career Grand Slam). The win in Melbourne kept the wolf from his door, which has been the major theme of the Federer-Nadal rivalry from the start.

Nadal, who will be 31 on June 3, five years younger than Federer, has been running down his prey for some time. In 2014, Nadal climbed to within three Slams of tying Federer (16-14) when the Spaniard won his ninth, and to date, last, French Open title. But a right wrist injury soon sidelined Nadal. It was the gateway to a frustrating two-year period of low confidence, ineffective ballstriking and subpar results.

Over time, Nadal's anxiety contributed heavily to the corrosion of his game. Betrayed by his body, his mind began to ask uncomfortable questions at awkward times. Some pundits wrote Nadal off when he lost in the fourth round of the 2016 US Open against No. 25 Lucas Pouille. They speculated that Nadal's relentless and muscular style was just too demanding for a man who had turned 30 and seemed increasingly prone to injury.

Like Federer, who spent the second half of 2016 sidelined while he tended a bad knee, Nadal took off most of the fall season. But he returned with a bang this year. Like his great rival, Nadal has looked reborn.

"How he plays after his serves -- it's unbelievable," Austria's Dominic Thiem told the press after he lost to Nadal in the final of the Madrid Masters. "You're under pressure after his serve almost every time."

The pressure Nadal puts on opponents is a major key to his success. According to Gilbert, Nadal is serving better than ever and "hitting his spots, especially out wide." Such precision enables Nadal to take control from the start.

Nadal concurs, but there's more to it.

"I think I am playing better with my forehand this year," he told the press in Madrid. "So that's the thing that I need to recover to keep having chances."

ESPN analyst Chris Evert believes that hunger and health will shape Nadal's foreseeable future.

"The way Nadal has always beaten up his body, getting proper rest, addressing his body, will become very important to his future," Evert said in a recent conference call. "He definitely looks hungry. I imagine he has three good years left, easy."

Habit, though, may prove a danger to Nadal if his success continues unabated. Nadal's obsession with order and repetition is manifest. But age will demand some accommodation.

Pam Shriver, also an ESPN analyst, put it this way during a call: "Federer has shown an ability to adapt to different routines. Will Nadal feel secure and confident enough to, say, dial back his practice sessions to 90 minutes or two hours as he gets older?"

Nadal seems to be getting the point and thinking long-term. He seemed content in Rome, where he reiterated that he wasn't worried about losing tennis matches. He was worried about staying healthy and remaining competitive.

"The most important thing is to be happy, no?" Nadal said. "More than being [ranked] fourth, fifth, sixth or second. Doesn't matter. Most important for me is to enjoy every week and feel well."

Wise words, but there's no reason Nadal can't put himself in a position to draw within three majors of Federer again and vault to world No. 2 or even No. 1 -- and still be happy. He probably knows it, too.