Nadal going for 4th straight major at Aussie Open

The merits of a ”Rafa Slam” versus Rocket’s Grand Slam were
being debated well before Rafael Nadal arrived in Australia in
pursuit of a fourth consecutive major title, something not achieved
in men’s tennis since Rod Laver won all four in 1969.

Analysts such as Jim Courier and Brad Gilbert think winning the
Australian Open would cap Nadal’s victories at the French Open,
Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and give the 24-year-old
Spaniard at least equal status with Laver because he’s done it on
three surfaces and against tougher competition.

Chief among those competitors is Roger Federer, who has won a
record 16 Grand Slam tournaments but has been thwarted, by Nadal,
in his own bid for four in a row.

Laver is impressed by Nadal’s run, but contends the calendar
can’t be ignored.

”He’s got three under his belt, and he’s playing well,” Laver
told The Associated Press. ”There’s a good chance he could pull it
off. But it’s not a Grand Slam, certainly. … People will say,
‘He’s going for a Grand Slam.’ And I say, ‘No, he’s not doing
that.’ That wasn’t the way this whole thing was set up.

”It starts in January and ends in September; starts with the
Australian Open and ends with the U.S. Open. Still, what he’s
trying to do is a great effort. It’s not a Grand Slam, but it’s a
great effort. It’s uncanny that no one has put it all together and
won four in a row.”

Andy Murray, the man Federer beat at Melbourne Park for the last
Australian title, sees Nadal’s run differently.

”It’s incredible,” Murray said. ”A lot of people are saying,
‘Well, it’s not all in the one calendar year.’ But I don’t really
think that makes any difference. If you hold all four ‘Slams’ at
one time, it’s an incredible achievement. Even three in a row is
amazing.

”That’s what all of us are competing against. He’s one of the
best players ever, if not the best, and he deserves to be No. 1 in
the world, and if he does win the Australian Open – which I hope he
doesn’t – then it would be incredible.

”It is already an incredible achievement for what he’s done at
his age, but it would be amazing.”

Federer came close to repeating Laver’s feat in 2006 and 2007,
when the Swiss player’s only Grand Slam losses were against Nadal
at the French Open.

”It’s not extra pressure, for me it’s extra motivation,” Nadal
said at the Qatar Open last week. ”The pressure is every day to
play well and keep winning matches and I don’t think (about)
winning (the) Australian Open immediately.”

Federer is not ready to give up his title.

”It’s a special Australian Open with me being the defending
champion,” Federer said. ”Rafa going for his fourth (Grand Slam
title), so obviously the focus is going to be on the two of us.
Tennis is really going to be exciting down in Australia.”

Nadal will begin his quest for his fourth straight Grand Slam
with a first-round match against Marcos Daniel of Brazil.

Serena Williams completed what she called her ”Serena Slam” of
four consecutive major titles at the 2003 Australian Open, but the
woman who has won five of the last eight finals at Melbourne will
be missing next week as she continues to recover from a foot
injury.

In her absence, three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters is
shaping up as the favorite for the Australian Open title with some
convincing wins at the Sydney International, where she has advanced
to the final.

”I don’t think about it like that at all, (favoritism) is
something that is put on you from the outside and it doesn’t change
anything in my mind,” Clijsters said. ”I am very happy with the
preparation that I’ve had and have worked hard in the offseason and
that’s the only thing I can do from my side.”

Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Sam Stosur have started
the year slowly in tuneup tournaments, while Justine Henin is still
coming back from injury. Top-seeded Wozniacki will face Gisela
Dulko of Argentina in a first-round match, while Henin drew a
qualifier on Friday.

Andre Agassi, who won a career Grand Slam among his eight majors
overall, made four consecutive Grand Slam finals but lost the
second – at Wimbledon in 1999. A four-time winner at Melbourne
Park, Agassi tipped Nadal as the favorite to win this year.

”He came off a dominating year and he took a healthy break
after the U.S. Open, so he is going to be rested and confident.
Federer also played fantastically at the end of the year. It’s a
close race between these two players, but Nadal has a bigger chance
now,” Agassi said at an exhibition tournament in Taiwan.

”Nothing Nadal does will surprise me anymore.”

Gilbert, who has coached Agassi and Andy Roddick, said it was
Nadal’s never-ending search for improvement that makes him the
game’s top player at the moment.

”He’s constantly trying things. I’m not sure I’ve seen somebody
in his position tweak his game as much as he has. That keeps him
motivated.” Gilbert said in a telephone interview. ”It’s hard to
prognosticate about the tournament until you see the draw. But he’s
obviously the favorite, and he should win.

”It would be the greatest accomplishment in tennis since Laver,
but the only difference is, when Laver won the calendar Slam in
’69, three of the four tournaments were on grass.”

If Nadal wins four straight he will have done it across clay,
grass and hard courts.

”It won’t be a calendar Slam, but it’ll be the greatest
achievement that I’ve seen in tennis,” Gilbert said. ”In ’69, I
was 8 years old, and I couldn’t comprehend what Laver did. There’s
no taking away from what Laver did, because he did it in a calendar
year. But let’s just say that this would be just off the charts.
Almost unthinkable in this day and age. …

”And potentially to do it with a guy like Federer in the mix,
who’s been one of the greatest players of all time, even makes it
more amazing.”

Courier, a four-time major winner who is the U.S. Davis Cup
captain and has been a TV analyst and on-court presenter at the
Australian Open, said a win by Nadal in Melbourne could be viewed
in two ways.

”There is something to winning all four in the same calendar
year. That is the technical definition of the Grand Slam in
tennis,” he said. ”There’s also some added pressure that goes
along with doing it in a calendar year, where you get the buildup
post-Wimbledon and all summer, everyone thinking about it and
talking about it.

”It doesn’t quite exist when you carry it over from the end of
a season into the next year.”

On the other hand, Courier agrees with Gilbert about the
challenge Nadal has faced in attempting to win four straight majors
on three different surfaces against a higher level of competition.
He also notes the difficulty of avoiding injuries given the way
Nadal plays and the demands of today’s game.

”The physicality of the game is so much greater,” he said.
”To stay healthy for seven matches, four tournaments, is no given,
particularly the bruising style of tennis that Rafa plays to win.
So the achievement, just to win three in a row, is immense. …

”Now you factor in he might do four in a row, which hasn’t been
done since the Rocket, it’s worth all the hype it should get here
in the next couple of weeks.”

AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report from
Washington, D.C.