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Nadal Seeks ‘Rafa Slam’ at Melbourne to Match Laver

Nadal Seeks ‘Rafa Slam’ Australian Open to Match Laver’s
Rafael Nadal of Spain. Photographer: Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal is poised to join another left-hander on the short list of men to hold all of tennis’s Grand Slam championships at once, a year after a knee injury cast doubts on his future.

Nadal, 24, needs to win the Australian Open, which starts Jan. 17 in Melbourne, to become the first male player to reign as singles champion at all four major tournaments since Australia’s Rod Laver swept the titles in 1969.

Only Laver, who also accomplished the feat in 1962, and American Don Budge in 1938 have won four in a row in one calendar year. With his second Australian title, Spain’s Nadal would enter what Simon Chadwick, a sports business professor at the Coventry University Business School in England, called the “endorsement stratosphere.” Nadal also would solidify his No. 1 ranking and draw closer to Roger Federer’s men’s record of 16 Grand Slam titles.

“There’s a great possibility that he can surpass Federer,” Mary Joe Fernandez, U.S. Fed Cup captain and a broadcaster for ESPN, said in an interview. “Every year you see an improvement, whether it’s his volley, his slice or his serve.”

The bookmakers agree. Nadal is the 7-4 favorite at William Hill Plc in London. That means a successful $4 bet brings in $7 plus the original stake. Federer, a 29-year-old Swiss, is second favorite at 2-1, with Britain’s Andy Murray at 6-1 and Serb Novak Djokovic at 13-2.

One Shot at History

Nadal begins the tournament against Brazilian Marcos Daniel, who’s ranked 95 places lower in the world.

Nadal was forced to withdraw from the quarterfinals in Melbourne last year against Murray, who’s a week older than the 23-year-old Djokovic, because of his right knee. The Spaniard took over the world No. 1 ranking from Federer in June after winning the French Open and went on to take the titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Having won his ninth major in New York at 24 years and three months of age, Nadal is ahead of Federer’s pace in collecting Grand Slam trophies. Federer, the defending Australian Open champion, had won six of his major titles when he was the same age.

History Books

Playing for a place in the history books is not going to be easy, said Martina Navratilova, who completed a two-year Grand Slam at the 1985 Australian Open.

“Those opportunities don’t come around very often,” the 54-year-old nine-time Wimbledon champion said in an interview. “You may have it once, maybe twice in your career if you are lucky. So that’s where the pressure gets huge. It’s sort of like the Olympics, you only have one shot at it, because chances are it’s not going to happen again. So there will be added pressure, but he thrives on that.”

Since Laver, 72, completed his second calendar Grand Slam in 1969, improvements in racket technology and a longer season have added to the physical toll on a player’s body, making it tougher to repeat the Australian’s feat. Serena Williams, 29, completed what the American dubbed a “Serena Slam” of four in a row by winning in Melbourne in 2003.

With Williams out of this year’s event, Hill makes 27-year-old Kim Clijsters the favorite at 2-1 odds, with 28-year-old Justine Henin at 5-1 and Caroline Wozniacki, 20, at 6-1.

Completing a similar “Rafa Slam” would give the Spaniard’s endorsement portfolio a major boost, Chadwick, the Coventry University professor, said in an interview.

“He will have achieved something that nobody else will have achieved for a very long time.”

$21 Million

Forbes Magazine in August estimated Federer’s annual earnings at $43 million, while Nadal brought in $21 million from prize money and endorsements with companies including Nike Inc. and Kia Motors Corp. Nadal may pass Federer as the sport’s top money maker, Chadwick said.

Holding the four titles at the same time would be “an incredible achievement” for Nadal, Murray said in a round-table interview at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London.

“It would be unbelievable, given the strength of the men’s game,” the world No. 5 said. “It’s as good as a calendar year slam. I don’t really see the difference.”

Laver doesn’t agree.

“It’s not a Grand Slam, but it’s a great effort,” Laver told The Associated Press. “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.”

Knee Injury

Nadal was forced to rest for a month after leaving Melbourne in 2010 with a small tear in the back part of a tendon in his knee. Things improved on the European clay, where he snapped an 11-month title drought in April in Monte Carlo. He won his fifth French Open title in June against 26-year-old Robin Soderling of Sweden, completing an unbeaten run of 22 matches during the clay-court season.

After Paris, Nadal headed straight for the London grass courts, where he won his second Wimbledon title in July against Tomas Berdych, 25, of the Czech Republic. Two months later in New York, Nadal became only the seventh man in tennis history to have won every major at least once by defeating Djokovic in the final.

“Everything was really emotional for me,” Nadal said in a round-table interview in London at the ATP Finals, when asked about his year. “The two key points were Monte Carlo and Roland Garros. After that, everything was a little bit less difficult. I was able to play with more calm, more confidence.”

No Extra Pressure

Nadal lost to Federer in the final of the season-ending championships and gave himself four days off before starting his practice for Australia.

He said he doesn’t feel any extra pressure to win in Melbourne now that he’s playing for a place in history.

“It doesn’t make a difference if I won three Grand Slams or if I won one or two,” Nadal said. “It happened in the past. When I start the season, I have zero points. I am going to work to be ready and be competitive to try to be in the top positions and to compete to keep winning titles. But the pressure for me is going to be the same.”

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