MELBOURNE, January 12 – A resurgent Roger Federer stands between Rafael Nadal and the "Rafa Slam" at the Australian Open, where the Spaniard can become the first man in 42 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once.Defending champion Federer, now 29, has struck an ominous vein of form, downing Nadal for the ATP World Tour Finals crown in November and winning this month’s Qatar Open to go 10 matches unbeaten.
Nadal, the world number one, is battling back from a debilitating fever which saw him slump out in the Qatar semis and delay his arrival in Melbourne.
The timing is brutal for Nadal, 24, who knows he may have only one shot at uniting all four majors — albeit not in the same year — for the first time since Australian great Rod Laver completed his second Grand Slam in 1969.
"It’s going to be the one chance I have in my life," he admitted.
Nadal was reigning Australian Open champion when he retired hurt from last year’s quarter-finals, but he bounced back to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and his first US Open, moving to nine Slam titles and closing on Federer’s record haul.
Federer thrived in Nadal’s absence to stretch his Grand Slam tally to 16 at Melbourne Park, and has found a new lease of life under Paul Annacone, the coach who guided Pete Sampras and Tim Henman.
The Swiss, left in floods of tears after losing the 2009 final to Nadal, lit the fuse for more fireworks in their famous rivalry by targeting a return to the number one spot.
"You have to have something special to become world number one. But I’m prepared for that," Federer said.
However, the enduring dominance of the top two, joint favourites here, only spells more problems for the chasing pack led by Serbia’s Novak Djokovic — the 2008 winner — and Andy Murray, heavily beaten by Federer in last year’s final.
"It’s incredible," said Murray, the world number five, marvelling at Nadal’s tilt at the "Rafa Slam".
"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 number one in the world, and if he does win the Australian Open — which I hope he doesn’t — then it would be incredible."
Murray’s quest to break Britain’s 75-year Grand Slam drought has been repeatedly blocked by the top pair, whose parade through the past 23 majors has been interrupted only by Djokovic and Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro.
However, Djokovic arrives on a high following Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over France last month, after collecting titles in Beijing and Dubai to end his fourth year in a row as world number three.
"The last couple of months I’ve been playing maybe my best tennis and definitely a title in the Davis Cup gave me a lot of confidence and a very short off season as well, but that’s the way it is. I have to adjust," he said.
"I’m still working hard off the court, trying to work physically well."
Sweden’s Robin Soderling won last week’s Brisbane International to leap-frog Murray as world number four, underlining his danger-man status after wins over Nadal and Federer at the 2009 and 2010 French Opens.
"I am playing really well and what makes me really happy is that I’ve never really played well in Australia before," Soderling said.
"But now I’ve won a tournament here and I’m playing really good tennis, which makes me happy and gives me a lot of confidence for Melbourne."
American evergreen Andy Roddick reached the 2009 semis here and was a quarter-finalist last year, while dark horses include Tomas Berdych, Mikhail Youzhny and Fernando Verdasco.