Roger Federer has never been in this position before. Neither has Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray.
None of the “bottom” three of the so-called Big Four in men’s tennis has ever been asked to stop a potential “Rafa Slam,” the term for No. 1 Rafael Nadal’s attempt to become the first man to win four consecutive majors since Rod Laver did it in a calendar year in 1969.
Federer has had two chances to pull off the feat himself, in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 when he won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open in succession, but was smoked by none other than Nadal at the French Open.
Now it might be Federer’s chance to stop Nadal should the two meet in the 2011 Australian Open final. Or it could be No. 3 Djokovic’s chance to best Nadal at a major, or 2010 finalist Murray’s opportunity to restate his relevance as he’s slated to meet Nadal in the semis.
“I think it’s unbelievable what Rafa’s been able to do,” said defending champion Federer. “That in some ways makes him the favorite for this tournament. I mean, he’s been playing incredible, an incredible run through the clay, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open. It was incredible to see. Then obviously it’s hard to maintain. But he’s going to be for sure ready for this. I’ll follow it very closely. If I get a chance, I hope I can stop him, obviously.”
Nadal caught a virus at the tournament in Qatar two weeks ago and was visibly straining in his loss to Nikolay Davydenko in the semis, but he’s been practicing in Melbourne and should be fit by the time the tournament comes around. He does not like to put a lot of attention on himself and largely maintains the same attitude that has earned him nine Grand Slam titles: Compete hard, focus each and every single second, and try to play the ball and the opponent, rather than history and the occasion. It has worked quite well for him.
“The pressure is like every Grand Slam; you want to play well in the important tournaments," Nadal said. "And for me, (having) the fourth or not is something that is not in my mind. What is in my mind is (to) try to play well, try to start the season playing well another time. . . . I think if that happens, for sure for me, I’m gonna be more happy to win.”
No one — not even the amazingly self-confident Federer — is going to say Nadal isn’t the favorite in this event, even though it was the Swiss who handily won the ATP Finals over Nadal in late November, and even though it was Federer who just won Qatar. There’s only one man who is willing to say it: the always humble Nadal himself.
“For sure (I) am feeling less favorite than (Federer) and not more favorite than Djokovic, Murray, (Robin) Soderling, these kind of players,” Nadal said.
Djokovic has beaten both of them, as has Murray. But the world knows who has the most stellar resumes at the Slams, and that the Swiss and Spaniard have combined for an incredible 25 Grand Slam titles since mid-2003. Djokovic managed to sneak in one Slam title at the 2008 Aussie Open, but has been stopped every time since, even though he arguably played the best tennis of his life at the 2010 U.S. Open, where he stunned Federer in five sets. But while he played Nadal very close in the final, he couldn’t get over on the inexhaustible Spaniard.
That’s pretty much the task for any player entering a Grand Slam — if he’s going to win it, he’s likely going to have to go through Federer and Nadal to do it. The only player who has managed to do that was the towering Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open, but he missed almost all of last year recovering from wrist surgery and cannot be expected to have a realistic chance to pull off the feat again until the summer.
In Melbourne, that pretty much leaves it up to Murray and Djokovic to stop the dual-opoly, which, if Nadal wins this major, will become a monopoly.
“They’re the two best players in the world, deservedly,” said Djokovic. "Of course, two biggest favorites in any tournament they play (in) to win the title. I guess I’m in this small group of players behind them that is trying to challenge them in each event. To be able to compete with them is a big challenge. Federer has been playing fantastic tennis in the last three, four months. He’s the defending champion. So maybe he has a little advantage there. But still, Nadal is No. 1.”
With the way Nadal has been playing over the past year, it’s hard to say that any draw is super-tough for him. And even if he plays at about 70 percent of his level, he should be able to get to the fourth round without much trouble. He faces Marcos Daniel in the first round, possibly Daniel Gimeno-Traver in the second, and maybe Aussie teen Bernard Tomic or 31st seed Feliciano Lopez in the third round. None of them is a real threat to him on the slow, hard court there.
His first test will likely come in the fourth round against either the tall American John Isner or 2010 semifinalist Marin Cilic in the fourth round, both of whom are capable of getting red hot and hurting him with booming serves. But Cilic has been in a miserable slump and seems to fear the big occasion. And as driven as Isner is, in a three-out-of-five-set match, Nadal will make sure to extend him and take his legs out.
It’s in the quarters where Nadal might face the most danger, as his friend, former Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian, has been playing well of late, as has his Davis Cup teammate David Ferrer, as well as Russian Mikhail Youhzny. The semis could bring the Swiss and No. 4 Robin Soderling, who has beaten Nadal before, or maybe Murray, who took him out in a spectacular quarterfinal last year, which sadly ended when Nadal retired with an injury.
Murray concurred with Djokovic when he named Nadal and Federer the favorites, but added that there are a lot of guys who can pull an upset if they are at their best. That’s a bit of an overstatement; realistically there’s only a handful of guys who can play their best and take out Nadal at his B-level, let alone his A-level.
But it’s not those men who are standing front and center at the Australian Open looking to gang-tackle Nadal; it’s a few capable individuals. And one of them, Federer, has won the title five times and is looking to get his king’s crown back.
But he knows he has to earn it.
“(Nadal) should be (the) favorite," Federer said. He’s holding the three slams. I hold this one still, but I won the ATP World Tour Finals; I’ve been playing really well on the hard courts right now. But he’s been the one dominating the slams. Had hardly any tough matches in the last three slams. That makes him the favorite.”
If Nadal does manage to win the title, a debate will ensue as to whether his accomplishment equals Laver’s, who won two calendar-year Slams in 1962 and 1969. Murray says it would be just as relevant, but it really isn’t, because going end to end in a calendar year and winning four in a row is more difficult than having an offseason to rest and coming into the fourth Slam mentally refreshed.
Even so, were Nadal to accomplish the feat at this juncture — while Federer is still more or less at the top of his game and Murray and Djokovic are two of the most talented young players the tour has seen in a long time — it would be a remarkable achievement.
All of Nadal’s rivals agree; they just don’t want him pulling it off on their watch.
“I think now, because of the depth in the game and because you have to win seven matches against, you know, (it’s) always different players, a different day," Murray said. "You turn up and play a bad match, because of depth you can lose. To me, I think if you hold all four Grand Slams, it’s one of the best achievements in sport. And I really hope he doesn’t do it.”