With the first Grand Slam tournament of the 2011 tennis season officially underway Down Under, the big storyline is whether world's No. 1 Rafael Nadal can capture his 10th major title and, in so doing, hold all four Grand Slam crowns at the same time.
If, indeed, the 24-year-old Spaniard hoists the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in a fortnight, he will be the first man since the legendary Rod (The Rocket) Laver to do so.
Since the feat would not occur in the same calendar year, technically it would not be considered an official Grand Slam. Prognosticators are calling it the "Rafa Slam."
Semantics, I say. If Nadal wins the Australian Open, call it what you want. I call it pure dominance.
Grand Slam Titles
- U.S. Open, 2010
- Wimbledon, 2010
- French Open, 2010
- Australian Open, 2009
- Wimbledon, 2008
- French Open, 2008
- French Open, 2007
- French Open, 2006
- French Open, 2005
I've been known to be a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to preserving statistics and sports historical records. However, not properly recognizing what would be the most impressive 365-day period in my generation is just splitting hairs.
While I still believe that Swiss maestro Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time and that his run over the past decade, including 16 Grand Slam titles, stands atop anything else I've seen in the sport, having Nadal own each of the Grand Slam crowns simultaneously is remarkable.
Federer, for longevity in greatness; Nadal, for short-term dominance. Yet it seems like everyone wants to talk about the Rafa Slam but the Spaniard himself.
"I think if that does happen, for sure, I am gonna be more happy to win in Australia because it's the Australian Open more than because it's the fourth in a row," Nadal said. "That's 100 per cent true."
On the mend
The relatively easy first week is just what the doctor ordered for Nadal, who is recovering from an apparent virus that obviously slowed him down during his semifinal finish in Qatar two weeks ago. The sickness delayed Nadal's arrival at Melbourne. But after a few practices and participating in the Rally for Relief fundraiser for the flood-ravaged parts of Australia, he looks to be on the mend.
Nadal is now purely focused on the next two weeks. His ability to not look past the next match and stay in the moment has made him the fiercest competitor on court. I've been fortunate to work with Nadal on various off-court projects, while he played at the Rogers Cup. You will never meet a kinder, more down-to-earth sports superstar. But get him between the lines and he's a bull fighter armed with a fatal forehand.
Nadal was backed at the tournament draw by the great Ivan Lendl, who won eight majors himself. And while it came across like a presidential campaign, Lendl, who remains the only male to make three consecutive men's finals since the Australian Open moved to Melbourne Park in 1988, cited Nadal's ability to constantly improve his game for the reason to take the championship — and complete the Slam.
Pool of Death
Of the big names in the tournament, Nadal looks to have the most gentle road through. The 2009 champion has two real challenges in his quarter of the draw: big-serving American John Isner and 15th-seeded Croatian Marin Cilic.
If the second quarter of the draw was in soccer, it would be the considered the Pool of Death. Not only are the fourth and fifth seeds — Robin Soderling of Sweden and Andy Murray of Great Britain, respectively — located in this section, but also 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, who is making his Grand Slam comeback after losing a year to injury and 255 spots in the ATP rankings. If del Potro wins his first match, the Argentine’s second-round opponent will likely be 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis from Cyprus, who is also attempting a personal comeback.
Throw in hard-hitting Jergen Melzer of Austria and you have one of the toughest quarters of a draw in recent Grand Slam memory. The man who survives this group could be rewarded with a match against Nadal in the semifinals.