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Rafael Nadal going for four in a row in Australia

Spaniard's feat wouldn't be recognized as a true Grand Slam, but he's favored to win again. Women's field looks up for grabs.

January 15, 2011|By Michelle Kaufman
  • Rafael Nadal goes into the Australian Open looking to become the first man to win four majors in a row since 1969.
Rafael Nadal goes into the Australian Open looking to become the first man… (Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA )

The most pressing issue Down Under heading into the Australian Open is when it might stop raining. Deadly floods have drenched large regions of Australia since November, and the wet weather continued to wreak havoc with a few tune-up tournaments last week.

But the biggest on-court question as the tennis world converges on Melbourne is whether Rafael Nadal will win a fourth consecutive major title. Last season, he won the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. If he wins the Australian Open, he will be the first man to win four majors in a row since another left-hander, Rod Laver, did it in 1969.

Laver, an Australian, was the last man to complete a true Grand Slam, which is a sweep of the four major titles in a calendar year. He also had a Grand Slam in 1962.

Roger Federer came close. The Swiss won three in a row over two seasons twice, and he won three of four in a year (Australian, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Jimmy Connors won three majors in 1974, and Mats Wilander did it in 1988.

Experts — including Laver — agree that if Nadal, 24, were to win four in a row, the "Nadal Slam," although impressive, would not be quite as prestigious as Laver's Grand Slams.

"There is something special to winning all four in the same calendar year," said former No. 1 Jim Courier, now a TV commentator. "That is the technical definition of the Grand Slam. I think there is some added pressure that goes with doing it in a calendar year, where you have all the buildup post-Wimbledon and all summer, everyone talking about it. It doesn't quite exist when you carry it over from the end of a season into the next, and that is the nod to Laver."

Laver agreed.

"There's a good chance he could pull it off, but it's not a Grand Slam, certainly," Laver told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Carlsbad. "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," Laver said, "what he's trying to do is a great effort. It's not a Grand Slam, but it's a great effort."

Courier pointed out that in some ways, if Nadal wins four in a row, it would surpass any achievement of a player from an earlier era.

"Looking at the awesomeness of the achievement — if he is able to do this, he's doing it in an era that's deeper than any era, pro or amateur," Courier said. "He's doing it now on three different surfaces, as opposed to Laver doing it on two. And, the physicality of the game is so much greater. To stay healthy for seven matches, four tournaments, is no given, particularly the bruising style of tennis Rafa plays to win.

"So, just to win three in a row is immense, and now he might do four, which hasn't been done since The Rocket, so it's worth all the hype."

Although most of the buzz has surrounded Nadal in recent weeks, there are other intriguing story lines heading into the first major of the season.

• Can anybody but Nadal and Federer win in Australia?

Since February 2005, 21 of the 23 Grand Slam events have been won by Nadal or Federer.

And there is reason to believe it will come down to those two again.

"I would pick Nadal at the Australian because I think he's much tougher to beat in longer matches," John McEnroe wrote on the ATP website. "If he remains healthy then he's the guy I would pick for every major right now until proven otherwise. I would love to see a guy like Juan Martin del Potro or one of the other guys like Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray step up and really make an impact and win some majors.

"That would be important for tennis, but Nadal is the favorite, just ahead of Federer."

Federer is the reigning champion, and though he hit some speed bumps midway through last season, he seems to be back on track. He has been working with American coach Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras' former coach, and finished the 2010 season with victories in Stockholm, Switzerland; and the ATP World Finals in London. He opened 2011 with a title in Doha, Qatar.

Courier said Swede Robin Soderling is another player with a chance, if Nadal and Federer falter.

"The average fan may not know a lot about him, but Soderling is a pretty hot hand right now," he said. "He's been playing awfully well, not only this year but last year. He had a big year, looks very solid. I think he's one to watch for sure."

• Will Caroline Wozniacki justify her No. 1 ranking?

The Dane is the least-known No. 1 player in recent memory, largely because her resume is devoid of a major title. She played well last season, but is off to a rough start in 2011 with exhibition losses to Kim Clijsters and Vera Zvonareva, and a loss to little-known Dominica Cibulkova.

Until she can win matches on the biggest stages, her No. 1 position will be tough to justify.

• Will an American win a major title?

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