SYDNEY: There will be upsets, there will be drama, there will be cheers and there will be tears, but most eyes at the Australian Open will be on whether Rafa Nadal can succeed where so many great players before him have failed.
The world number one left Melbourne Park last year after retiring injured from his quarter-final against Andy Murray but returned this week with the Wimbledon, French and US Open titles in his possession.
A second Australian Open title on January 30 would make him only the third man to have held all four grand slam titles at one time, a feat beyond even the great Roger Federer. To date, at least.
The era of the Swiss maestro is not over quite yet and Federer returns as defending champion in search of his fifth Australian Open title on the back of a spell of tremendous form at the end of last season and the start of this.
While second seed Federer appears in rude health, there are health concerns about Nadal, even if this year it is a flu virus, not his knees, that has disrupted his preparations.
The Spaniard has no doubt he will be on court next week for his first round match against Brazilian Marcos Daniel and like all great champions his focus is on winning tennis matches, not on the annals of the game.
“My motivation is the Australian Open, that’s my motivation,” the top seed croaked to reporters in Melbourne on Friday.
“Nothing bigger than this — not because last year I had an injury, not because I have the chance to win the fourth grand slam in a row.
“For me the pressure is the same every tournament. The pressure is my pressure. I want to play well, to do the right things and we will see.”
Although Nadal and Federer have dominated the grand slams for the last few years — only two of the last 20 major titles have gone elsewhere — there are strong contenders waiting in the wings should either or both slip up.
Serbian Novak Djokovic, the 2008 champion at Melbourne Park, last year’s runner up Andy Murray and twice French Open losing finalist Robin Soderling round out the top five seeds and all have the game to challenge the top two on any given day.
The Australian Open has thrown up a surprise finalist or two in recent years and the likes of last year’s Wimbledon runner up Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could go deep.
If men’s tennis is enjoying a golden age, you would have to reach for a baser metal to describe the state of the women’s game.
The absence of last year’s winner and five-times champion Serena Williams through injury leaves the battle for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup trophy wide open.
Dane Caroline Wozniacki is the top seed courtesy of her number one ranking, the latest in a series of players to have reached the summit of the women’s game without having won a grand slam.
The bookmakers favor Kim Clijsters and the 27-year-old Belgian has looked in prodigious form at the Sydney International, while the other top seeds have either eschewed the traditional warm-ups or made early exits.
The US Open champion has shown since her return from retirement in 2009 that she has lost none of her mental strength, which should hold her in good stead in her first round match against another former number one Dinara Safina.
Second seed Vera Zvonareva, a tearful runner up at Wimbledon and the US Open last year, is another contender to make the step up to a first major title, according to one of the world’s leading coaches, Patrick Mouratoglou, at least.
“She reached two grand slam finals last year, which is pretty good and she’s not the one anyone expects but I think she can really do something,” he told Reuters.
“Of course, I think we have to make Clijsters favorite and Wozniacki is going to win grand slams but I am not sure she is ready yet. But there are a few who can win.”
After a long barren stretch, Australia also have a top five challenger in Sam Stosur and she is confident she can end the 32-year wait for a local champion.
“I’m going to go in there thinking I can (win it),” she said. “But there’s a long way from thinking you can do it and playing a first round to holding the trophy at the end.”
Nadal knows that all too well, which is why he is not given to making predictions.
Were Nadal to achieve what only American Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) have before, however, there could hardly be a more appropriate arena on which to do it than the one named after the Australian great.
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