Grand designs


Can Rafael Nadal continue his march towards sporting greatness by winning the Australian Open, or will the young pretenders come of age, asks Sam Geoghegan

The Australian Open began yesterday and it promises to be an exciting and exhilarating tournament to signal the new season of tennis. It’s the first Grand Slam of the year, hosted in Melbourne Park over the course of the next two weeks. Switzerland’s Roger Federer is the defending champion in the men’s draw, while Serena Williams of the United States will not be defending her crown or adding to any of her five previous titles as she was forced to withdraw due to a foot injury.

Rafael Nadal is traditionally Federer’s main threat and this tournament will prove to be no exception. Nadal is the number one seed even though Federer is the defending champion. The Spaniard has won the previous three Grand Slam titles, albeit last season.

If Nadal were to claim his second Australian Open title, it would be a remarkable achievement that would see him hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. This feat has not been accomplished since Rod Laver did it in 1969. It is so difficult because the four Grand Slams of the year are played on three different surfaces and it is almost impossible to be a master on all three.

Nadal has proved to be the undisputed “King of Clay” with five French Open titles to his name and he finally broke the grass domination of Federer at Wimbledon in 2008. He has already won the Australian and US Open – both of which are played on hard courts.

Back in September, Nadal became only the seventh man to have won all four Grand Slams when he beat Novak Djokovic in Flushing Meadows, New York, at the US Open. The Spaniard was the youngest man to have achieved this feat in the Open era and his fierce rival, Federer, had only joined that elite group of players the previous year, having always been denied at Roland Garros by Nadal.

For Federer, this tournament could prove to be a monumental shift in not only his career, but also male tennis as a whole. If he were unable to defend his title over the next two weeks, it would be the first time since 2003 (the year of his first Grand Slam) that he has not held at least one of the four Grand Slams. Federer may even re-assess his career and consider whether retirement would be the logical decision, to avoid fading away gradually and unfittingly for a man of his brilliance.

Federer has achieved everything you can in the game. He has won all four of the Grand Slams and his 16 titles are the most by any male ever to play the game, eclipsing the 14 titles of Pete Sampras. Nadal still has a lot more to win if he is to equal Federer’s record and it could be hard for him to win seven more considering the problems he has with his knees.

The 2011 season could be the turning point of male tennis and herald a new era of champions. Djokovic, Robin Soderling of Sweden and Scotland’s Andy Murray are all in a wonderful position to capitalise on any dip in the form from Federer or Nadal.

For Murray especially, a drop in Federer’s form would be most welcome. Murray carries the hopes of British tennis into every Grand Slam and in the two finals in which he has appeared Federer has stood in his way (at the 2008 US Open and at last year’s Australian Open).

If Murray is ever to win a Grand Slam and be the first British male tennis player since Fred Perry to do so, he needs to get the monkey off his back very soon. If he doesn’t, he’ll just become another Tim Henman and nobody wants that to happen.

On the women’s side of the draw, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark is the number one seed with Russian Vera Zvonareva and Belgium’s finest Kim Clijsters right behind the Dane at number two and three respectively. Venus Williams hopes to keep the title in her family and is well placed, being the number four seed.

Many questions will be answered over the next two weeks. This event may be pivotal in the make-up of men’s tennis for years to come, or Nadal and Federer could continue to dominate. Either way, it will be worth watching, with the finals of both ladies and men to be played in just under two weeks.