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Australian Open preview: can Rafa achieve immortality?

Stephen Kelly sets the alarm clock for a couple of weeks of antipodean hard-court tennis.

Image: Mark Baker/AP/Press Association Images

IN SEPTEMBER 1969, Rod Laver defeated compatriot Tony Roche in the US Open final to complete the second calendar Grand Slam of his career.

Since then no man has held all four Grand Slam titles at once but with the Australian Open starting on Monday, Rafael Nadal could be on the verge of becoming only the third in history to do just that.

If the Spaniard can pull it off, debate is likely to rage as to whether the achievement matches that of Laver. Andy Murray, the man who beat Nadal in Melbourne last year, reckons it would while Laver himself, unsurprisingly disagrees.

Nadal’s path to what would inevitably become known as the “Rafa Slam” has been eased considerably by his draw. He could hardly have scripted it any better himself with David Ferrer, who Nadal holds an 11-3 winning record over, the next highest seed in his quarter.

Big-serving American John Isner could pose some problems in the fourth round while David Nalbandian, whose clash with Lleyton Hewitt is the pick of the first round action, is a potential quarter-final opponent.

Otherwise, Nadal’s path to the semi-final looks pretty clear with Andy Murray the player most likely to be waiting in the last four.

At 23, you get the feeling it could be now or never for the Scot but his cause hasn’t been helped by being drawn in a quarter that features the fourth seed Robin Soderling, 2009 US Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro and two recent Melbourne finalists in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marcos Baghdatis.

If he can find his top form, Murray undoubtedly has the talent to come through but the biggest problem could be doing it in a manner that leaves him fully fresh to face Nadal in the semi-final.

Defending champion Roger Federer is the bookies’ favourite after taking the title in Doha earlier this month and he looks the form player in the game right now.

The world number two has a reasonably clear path to the semi-final, with personal whipping-boy Andy Roddick the highest-seeded obstacle in his path to a possible repeat of last year’s epic US Open semi-final against 2008 champion Novak Djokovic.

Although it is by no means a given, a repeat of the 2009 final between Federer and Nadal that left the Swiss player in tears looks more than a strong possibility.

While the men’s draw may have an air of predictability surrounding it, the ladies tournament looks the most wide open in years due to the absence of Serena Williams with her mysterious foot injury.

The American has won three of the last four Australian Open titles and in 2003 claimed the feat Nadal will be aiming to match by taking her fourth major in a row.

In Serena’s absence, the tournament favourite is Kim Clijsters, a runner-up to compatriot Justine Henin in 2004.

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With Henin in the opposite half of the draw a repeat of that final looks a possibility but with neither player looking particularly impressive so far this season, several outsiders have a chance.

One of those is Caroline Wozniacki. It seems absurd to describe top seed as an outsider but while the Dane undoubtedly has the mental toughness required to take the title, her relative lack of power holds her back against the very best opponents.

Another contender is Vera Zvonareva. The Russian second seed was runner up at both the US Open and Wimbledon last year and with that experience under her belt she could be primed to go one better.

Other big names in the draw include former world number 1s Maria Sharapova and Anna Ivanovic but neither has shown anything recently to suggest they can take the title.

With Conor Niland exiting at the first hurdle in qualifying and injury denying Louk Sorensen the chance to repeat last year’s heroics, Irish interest in the tournament is already over.

However, that’s hardly unusual for a major tennis tournament and the next fortnight promises to be yet another feast for insomniac sports fans regardless.

About the author:

Stephen Kelly

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