Nadal going for 4th straight major at Aussie Open

The merits of a "Rafa Slam" versus Rocket's Grand Slam were being debated well before Rafael Nadal arrived in Australia in pursuit of a fourth consecutive major title, something not achieved in men's tennis since Rod Laver won all four in 1969.

Analysts such as Jim Courier and Brad Gilbert think winning the Australian Open would cap Nadal's victories at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and give the 24-year-old Spaniard at least equal status with Laver because he's done it on three surfaces and against tougher competition.

Chief among those competitors is Roger Federer, who has won a record 16 Grand Slam tournaments but has been thwarted, by Nadal, in his own bid for four in a row.

Laver is impressed by Nadal's run, but contends the calendar can't be ignored.

"He's got three under his belt, and he's playing well," Laver told The Associated Press. "There's a good chance he could pull it off. But it's not a Grand Slam, certainly. ... 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, what he's trying to do is a great effort. It's not a Grand Slam, but it's a great effort. It's uncanny that no one has put it all together and won four in a row."

Andy Murray, the man Federer beat at Melbourne Park for the last Australian title, sees Nadal's run differently.

"It's incredible," Murray said. "A lot of people are saying, 'Well, it's not all in the one calendar year.' But I don't really think that makes any difference. If you hold all four 'Slams' at one time, it's an incredible achievement. Even three in a row is amazing.

"That's what all of us are competing against. He's one of the best players ever, if not the best, and he deserves to be No. 1 in the world, and if he does win the Australian Open — which I hope he doesn't — then it would be incredible.

"It is already an incredible achievement for what he's done at his age, but it would be amazing."

Federer came close to repeating Laver's feat in 2006 and 2007, when the Swiss player's only Grand Slam losses were against Nadal at the French Open.

"It's not extra pressure, for me it's extra motivation," Nadal said at the Qatar Open last week. "The pressure is every day to play well and keep winning matches and I don't think (about) winning (the) Australian Open immediately."

Federer is not ready to give up his title.

"It's a special Australian Open with me being the defending champion," Federer said. "Rafa going for his fourth (Grand Slam title), so obviously the focus is going to be on the two of us. Tennis is really going to be exciting down in Australia."

Nadal will begin his quest for his fourth straight Grand Slam with a first-round match against Marcos Daniel of Brazil.

Serena Williams completed what she called her "Serena Slam" of four consecutive major titles at the 2003 Australian Open, but the woman who has won five of the last eight finals at Melbourne will be missing next week as she continues to recover from a foot injury.

In her absence, three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters is shaping up as the favorite for the Australian Open title with some convincing wins at the Sydney International, where she has advanced to the final.

"I don't think about it like that at all, (favoritism) is something that is put on you from the outside and it doesn't change anything in my mind," Clijsters said. "I am very happy with the preparation that I've had and have worked hard in the offseason and that's the only thing I can do from my side."

Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Sam Stosur have started the year slowly in tuneup tournaments, while Justine Henin is still coming back from injury. Top-seeded Wozniacki will face Gisela Dulko of Argentina in a first-round match, while Henin drew a qualifier.

Andre Agassi, who won a career Grand Slam among his eight majors overall, made four consecutive Grand Slam finals but lost the second — at Wimbledon in 1999. A four-time winner at Melbourne Park, Agassi tipped Nadal as the favorite to win this year.

"He came off a dominating year and he took a healthy break after the U.S. Open, so he is going to be rested and confident. Federer also played fantastically at the end of the year. It's a close race between these two players, but Nadal has a bigger chance now," Agassi said at an exhibition tournament in Taiwan.

"Nothing Nadal does will surprise me anymore."

Gilbert, who has coached Agassi and Andy Roddick, said it was Nadal's never-ending search for improvement that makes him the game's top player at the moment.

"He's constantly trying things. I'm not sure I've seen somebody in his position tweak his game as much as he has. That keeps him motivated." Gilbert said in a telephone interview. "It's hard to prognosticate about the tournament until you see the draw. But he's obviously the favorite, and he should win.

"It would be the greatest accomplishment in tennis since Laver, but the only difference is, when Laver won the calendar Slam in '69, three of the four tournaments were on grass."

If Nadal wins four straight he will have done it across clay, grass and hard courts.

"It won't be a calendar Slam, but it'll be the greatest achievement that I've seen in tennis," Gilbert said. "In '69, I was 8 years old, and I couldn't comprehend what Laver did. There's no taking away from what Laver did, because he did it in a calendar year. But let's just say that this would be just off the charts. Almost unthinkable in this day and age. ...

"And potentially to do it with a guy like Federer in the mix, who's been one of the greatest players of all time, even makes it more amazing."

Courier, a four-time major winner who is the U.S. Davis Cup captain and has been a TV analyst and on-court presenter at the Australian Open, said a win by Nadal in Melbourne could be viewed in two ways.

"There is something to winning all four in the same calendar year. That is the technical definition of the Grand Slam in tennis," he said. "There's also some added pressure that goes along with doing it in a calendar year, where you get the buildup post-Wimbledon and all summer, everyone thinking about it and talking about it.

"It doesn't quite exist when you carry it over from the end of a season into the next year."

On the other hand, Courier agrees with Gilbert about the challenge Nadal has faced in attempting to win four straight majors on three different surfaces against a higher level of competition. He also notes the difficulty of avoiding injuries given the way Nadal plays and the demands of today's game.

"The physicality of the game is so much greater," he said. "To stay healthy for seven matches, four tournaments, is no given, particularly the bruising style of tennis that Rafa plays to win. So the achievement, just to win three in a row, is immense. ...

"Now you factor in he might do four in a row, which hasn't been done since the Rocket, it's worth all the hype it should get here in the next couple of weeks."


AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.