It’s that time of the year again. The first grand slam of the year is upon us – in less than a week, the stars of the tennis world will be battling it out against each other for the Norman Brookes Challenge trophy. And one man, Rafael Nadal, will be raring to bite that trophy once again.
It comes as a bit of a startling realization that Nadal last won this trophy 5 years ago, in 2009, in that epic 5 setter against Roger Federer. Since then Nadal withdrew in the match against Murray due to injury in 2010, missed the “Rafa Slam” in 2011 after losing to David Ferrer in straight sets, contested in that epic 5 hour 53 minute finals against Djokovic, where he was a break up in the final set but still lost, in 2012, and had to withdraw from the tournament due to a stomach virus last year.
In spite of these unlucky and unfortunate events , things are looking up for the current world no.1 as he enters Australia this year.
For one, Nadal had never won a tournament during the first week of the year, and he broke that streak this year by claiming victory in a hard fought 3-set final in Doha against Gael Monfils.
What was impressive about this victory, was that he “was able to win 5 matches in a row, with not so good preparation”, in his own words. Nadal has continued with his momentum after a highly succesful year in 2013, and he is in no mood to concede that number one ranking to his rivals any time soon.
From a rankings perspective, the Australian Open is a great chance for Nadal to extend the gap between him and Djokovic, considering that, after the Open, he has a lot of points to defend. Going deep in the Australian Open could give him a very good cushion till the clay season, and he can gain points again at Wimbledon.
But, more than the rankings, history beckons Nadal. A win at the Australian Open would put Nadal on a unique pedestal with Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, as the only players to win each Grand Slam at least twice. He would also be the only player to achieve the feat while it is played on three different surfaces.
As much as Nadal likes to dismiss speculation of him winning the tournament, or maintaining rankings, he would not let go of this opportunity to cement his place further in the history of tennis and to give him a headstart in the season.
Considering the hard courts at Australia are more suited to Nadal’s game than the ones in America, it is a surprise that he has won only once. A combination of injury and bad luck have kept him away from another title so far. Nadal is living his peak years in tennis now, and he knows more than anyone else the opportunity is ripe for him to claim the title and equal Pete Sampras’s career haul of 14 Grand Slam singles titles.
In his way stand the same old formidable competitors – Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer. Of course, there are others as well, but these are the ones who could be a roadblock to him.
But considering Murray is still recovering from his injury, and Federer not in his prime, it all boils down to Novak Djokovic, the primary threat. A three time consecutive defending champion at Melbourne, he knows how to beat Nadal and he will be raring to salvage his losses at Roland Gaross and Flushing Meadows last year.
Being the top two seeds, they can only meet, if they do meet, in the finals. What an exciting contest that would be!
In a way, the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has been more exciting than Federer-Nadal, as the winner of these matches is always unpredictable, no matter where they meet (except maybe on clay where Nadal still holds a slight edge). The unpredictabilty makes their contest exciting to watch, even if it doesn’t have the weight of history as much as it did when Federer and Nadal met.
The draw will reveal the players Nadal has to beat and the route he has to take to achieve success at Melbourne, but as things stand, there is very little of chance of an upset at an early stage.
In the kind of form he’s in, expect Nadal to go deep in Australia. He may or may not win it, but, with the Open just a week away, it is safe to assume that Nadal will not leave his fans disappointed.