Can Rafa realistically win the French Open this season?

A familiar, yet unexpected, face might be the central figure when it comes to figuring out how the French Open will play out in a few weeks' time.

Yes, all eyes will be on the world's best player, Novak Djokovic, who will again be going for the one major title that has eluded him. And then there's Andy Murray, who's playing the best clay-court tennis of his life. This one-two punch has dominated the tennis headlines the past couple of weeks, with Djokovic winning in Madrid and Murray in Rome.

But it's nine-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal who looks more and more like a player who could run away with this title again.

Last month, the world No. 5 won 13 straight matches that produced titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. The steak came to an end in Madrid, where he fell to Murray in the semifinals -- the first time in his career Nadal had ever lost in consecutive years to the same player at the same tournament on clay.

Then in Rome last week, Nadal took down hard-serving Nick Kyrgios in the third round before running into Djokovic in the semifinals. It's clear the Serb, who has taken seven straight matches and 15 straight sets off Nadal, is better, but the gap is closing. Nadal had leads in both sets against Djokovic, but couldn't close either out.

"In general, I'm playing well in most of the matches most of the time," Nadal told reporters after losing to Djokovic in Rome. "And today, I was there mentally fighting for every point, hitting good shots."

His effort notwithstanding, the question still stands: If Nadal cannot win a set against Djokovic, never mind a match, is it a stretch to call him dangerous? The eyes don't lie. Heading into Roland Garros, Nadal looks more like the vicious Rafa of old.

"I'm on the bandwagon, definitely," said ATP strategist Craig O'Shanessy, who also runs the data mining and strategy tennis website braingametennis.com. "I really think what Nadal is building is fine. I don't think the loss to Murray [in Madrid] deters me at all."

But we still have to consider these gloom factors in determining whether Nadal is Grand Slam-ready:

  • He hadn't beaten a top-50 player this season until he took out world No. 45 Gilles Muller in the first round at Indian Wells.

  • He hasn't beaten Djokovic in a best-of-three match in nearly three years (2013 Canadian Masters finals) or in a Grand Slam in two (2014 French Open final).

For all the talk of his shaky confidence, Nadal has surged back on the clay. He won his ninth title at Monte Carlo last month, demolishing Stan Wawrinka along the way. In the final, Nadal pounded Gael Monfils 6-0 in the third set.

Just before that, Nadal won Barcelona for the ninth time. He beat two-time defending champion Kei Nishikori in the final with a relentless style that for many parts of the past two-and-a-half years looked a thing of the past.

How, then, did the 14-time Grand Slam winner finally get back on track? Three reasons, according to O'Shannessy:

  • Confidence: "At the Tour Finals in London last year, he had some success. He lost to Djokovic, but Nadal had three wins over the top seven players [Wawrinka, Murray, David Ferrer], plus the match at Indian Wells this year when he seemed done against [Alexander] Zverev but ended up winning. When you give a top player an extra life, it unlocks them. It allows them to rediscover themselves and hit freely. That match might have saved his season."

  • Health: "You have to remember for the past two years, he's had some kind of injury. He had the back issue against Wawrinka in the Australian Open final, then he had the wrist [injury] that made him miss the US Open. You saw him play well last year after the US Open, but then he had the appendix issue. Nadal shouldn't have played at all with that, but he went to Basel, which didn't help himself in his recovery."

  • Defense: "It's the movement I see that has really made the difference. If you watch him at Monte Carlo, Wawrinka was absolutely crushing the ball. He was hitting every ball to whatever spot he wanted -- and they all came back. Rafa had rediscovered the movement that made him such a beast to play, forcing Wawrinka to hit another ball, and then another, on shots that were winners against anyone else."

    On the European clay, Nadal has also rediscovered his own personal beast mode. Entering the clay season, he was winning 36 percent of his return games, which is tied with Djokovic for best on the tour.

    Nadal is holding serve 80 percent of the time, which is good, but quite lower than what his conversion rate was during his prime years.

    "This guy is a different deal," O'Shannessy said. "I've analyzed all of his French Open victories. If you go from Monte Carlo, it's his ability to repel the opponent on the biggest point. He just turns into Superman by the time he gets to Roland Garros."