What a 10th French Open title would mean to Rafael Nadal

In April, Rafael Nadal looked like the leading man again, winning back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He took down Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Gael Monfils in Monte Carlo, then handled Kei Nishikori in the Barcelona final. There was a considerable pep in his step, an unmistakable glide in his stride.

Nadal has impossibly high standards, particularly when he plays on clay.

That standard, of course, is himself. In the span of a decade, from 2005 to 2014, he won a record nine French Open championships.

Which raises the question: Is Rafa ready to bring home No. 10?

"I think I'm on a positive path," Nadal said to the media in Rome last week. "I hope to continue on this path. I feel happy competing. I'm comfortable. Also when I train, I train with a lot of joy to continue going this way."

As he approaches age 30 -- Rafa will hit the milestone on June 3, the second week of Roland Garros -- the search for supreme confidence is ongoing.

In the Rome semifinals, Rafa played as well against Novak Djokovic as you can play -- without winning. It was 7-5, 7-6 (4). It could have been a preview of the potentially most compelling match in Paris. It is not completely unreasonable to imagine Nadal winning that match, whether it's the quarterfinals, semifinals or finals.

Ten. Roll that one around in your mind. In terms of tennis, it is an almost unfathomable number.

Roger Federer and Pete Sampras both won seven times on the lush lawns of Wimbledon. Martina Navratilova did it on nine occasions. But no player in the Open era has hit double digits in a single Grand Slam event. Margaret Smith Court did win 11 Australian Open titles, but seven of them (won consecutively, from 1960 to '66) came before the Open era began.

Eighteen-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert won seven French Open championships, but there is an asterisk. After winning in 1974 and 1975, she skipped Paris for three consecutive years, choosing to play in Billie Jean King's World Team Tennis venture. Evert was the WTA's No. 1-ranked player over that time, and when she returned to Paris, she won the titles in 1979 and 1980.

"I think 10 would be tremendous for Rafa," Evert said recently. "I mean, what can you say about what that would mean?

"I think that for a male player, three of five sets on red clay is the hardest to win. It's just hard work. He's the greatest clay-court grinder that ever lived. Mentally, it's so tough to have the patience and the perseverance."

Evert was a sparkling 72-6 in her matches at Roland Garros. Nadal is a smoking 70-2. Bjorn Borg, who retired at the age of 25, was 49-2 at the French.

Paul Annacone, longtime coach of Sampras and a Tennis Channel analyst, said that going forward, Nadal will have to balance his career-long desire to play many matches against a more prudent approach.

"My big concern for Rafa is this: As you get older, it's very difficult to sustain an unbelievably high level for a long time," Annacone said. "That's how Rafa has always gained confidence -- win Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. At [almost] 30, that's hard not to take something out of the fuel tank.

"That's why people like Sampras and Federer, who innately think they're better than everybody -- not arrogantly, but matter-of-factly -- age better. It's why those guys can play at a high level for longer than Rafa, and, say, [Ivan] Lendl, Thomas Muster. It's not a criticism, but an observation.

"For Rafa, it's a matter of sustaining confidence, but not playing too much that he depletes the reserve."

Rafa's renaissance has not gone unnoticed in the small circle of elite former players. Two venerable Australian Grand Slam champions have been watching from their homes in the United States.

"The way Nadal is playing right now, that's going to be interesting if Nadal and Djokovic meet in the French semifinal or final," 11-time major winner Rod Laver told ESPN.com. "You just don't know how Djokovic would react because he thought he was going to win last year.

"For me, I would think if they play at same level and get to one of the last matches, I would think Nadal might be the one to win."

Roy Emerson, a 12-time Grand Slam champion, admires Nadal's work ethic.

"Every single point, he plays like it's the second World War," Emerson said. "He doesn't hit anyone off court with serve anymore, but every point's a battle. It's impressive how he can have that desire and concentrate on winning all the points, every one.

"A 10th title at Roland Garros? I think it would be incredible. I'd like to see him do it."

Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob is blown away by Rafa's raw numbers.

"You look at his record and see nine Monte Carlos, nine Barcelonas, nine French Opens," Gimelstob said. "He's been the most dominant, most successful player on any surface in the history of the sport. It's amazing for the sport that he's back and in the mix."

For the longest time, the hardest thing in tennis was to beat Nadal on red clay. He might be more human now, but a 10th French Open title is within his grasp. There would be few words to accurately describe this accomplishment.

"I don't think there are any," Annacone said. "How do you frame something like that? It would be one of the most remarkable accomplishments in terms of dominance we've ever seen."