SYDNEY, (Reuters) – After staging a remarkable comeback in 2013, Spanish buccaneer Rafa Nadal has his eye on more grand slam silverware this year and is shaping up as the biggest threat to Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open reign.
While Nadal reasserted his hegemony over Roland Garros with an eighth French Open triumph last year and Roger Federer has won seven Wimbledon crowns, Djokovic has made Melbourne Park his own grand slam banker with four titles in the last five years.
The Serbian last tasted defeat on the banks of the Yarra River almost four years ago and if he can extend his unbeaten run on the blue plexicushion to 28 matches this year, would become the first man in the professional era to take the title five times.
“The Australian Open is definitely my most successful grand slam, my favourite grand slam. I love spending time here,” Djokovic said after being drawn to face world number 90 Lukas Lacko in the opening round yesterday.
“It’s the start of the season and I think most of the players are sharing the same opinion. We love the atmosphere, the easy energy that flows around, and of course the tennis fever.”
Nadal missed the tournament in 2013 when a bout of stomach flu capped a miserable run of injuries but made a remarkable return with 10 titles, including his 12th and 13th in grand slams, to knock the Serb off the top of the world rankings.
So while Federer, also a four-times Australian Open champion, and Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, a finalist in three of the last four years, cannot be written off, Nadal looks the man most likely to usurp Djokovic.
Nadal opened the new season with another title win in Qatar and few tennis fans would be too disappointed if the two weeks of competition at Melbourne Park, which start on Monday, climax with a re-match of his six-hour 2012 final defeat to Djokovic.