Rafael Nadal has found himself in an unenviable position. He has to top himself.
Following a year in which he claimed the No. 1 ranking, 10 singles titles, a 75-7 overall record, and two Grand Slam titles, the 28-year-old Spaniard takes center court with the Australian Open beginning Monday.
Nadal stormed back from a career-threatening knee injury with one of the most dominant stretches of play tennis hasn’t seen since current No. 2 Novak Djokovic began his reign atop the world rankings.
Now, Nadal has to find a way to remain on top.
Djokovic is just behind Nadal as the No. 2 seed, followed by Spain’s David Ferrer, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, and then the legendary Roger Federer as the Melbourne event nears. Based off past battles, Nadal has the edge with a combined 86-41 record over his top seeded foes.
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Meeting only in semifinals or finals last year, Nadal and Djokovic split their six matches, but Nadal earned the most bragging rights with his wins coming in the French Open semis and a thrilling four setter in the U.S. Open final.
Nadal also owns the all-time series, 22-17, but his run last year overshadowed an outstanding year by his rival Djokovic. The 26-year-old three-time defending Aussie Open champ went 74-9 in all tournaments last year, and made three of the four slam finals, unfortunately dropping two of them.
Perhaps nodding to Djokovic’s string of titles in Melbourne rather than slighting Nadal, odds makers have given the Serb the better chance of capturing a fourth consecutive slam down under, according to OddsChecker. Much like Nadal has dominated the French Open, Djokovic has solidified his place as an all-time great in Australia.
Nadal did win the Australian once, back in 2009, and made the finals a second time in 2012, losing to Djokovic in five sets.
Thus far, Nadal has looked sharp against lesser competition, and his knee showed no signs of injury. He began the season by capturing the Qatar Open last week, dropping only three out of 13 sets, and dispatched No. 7 seed Ernests Gulbis in straight sets in the quarters.