Some records hover just beyond reach for players considered among the game’s greatest.
Roger Federer’s chances of adding a second French Open crown to his cluttered trophy cabinet now appear distant. Andre Agassi couldn’t repeat at either Roland Garros or Wimbledon. Pete Sampras never went close in Paris.
One man, Rod Laver, won all four majors at least twice in his decorated career, and world No.1 Rafael Nadal enters Australian Open 2014 able to join this elite club if he triumphs in Melbourne.
The Spaniard’s coach, Toni Nadal, has spoken of the year’s first major being his charge’s greatest challenge of 2014 at an event where a spate of injuries and, on occasions, a handful of inspired opponents have thwarted his repeat bid.
With talk of the courts in Melbourne playing faster this year, the difficulty of Nadal’s mission is compounded by having arguably the toughest draw of the title contenders in the field.
He could meet three players who have already reached finals in the first two weeks of the new year – Bernard Tomic, Gael Monfils and Lleyton Hewitt – before he even reaches the quarterfinals.
His first-round hurdle, Tomic, is a player who feeds off the home crowd support in Melbourne Park’s biggest cauldron, and gave Nadal a taste of what to expect as an unorthodox 199th-ranked wildcard in the third round here three years ago.
“Not the best round I know to start a Grand Slam, playing against a player who is local and who is young, who played great in the past here, and who is playing well. He's in the final of Sydney. (It) is a tough start,” Nadal said of Tomic.
“But always a challenging player, no? He has a big talent. He has a good serve. He's able to play with very good control from the baseline. He has a very good talent on where you (are) going to hit the ball.”
Comfortable playing before a sporting Australian public, there was no concern from the Spaniard about the crowd on Rod Laver Arena being overly parochial in Tomic’s favour.
“I played against him here in Australia. I played against Lleyton here few times. Australian crowd is one of the best. I really have fun all the time when I was able to play on this fabulous court, Rod Laver Arena,” he said.
“I think they understand about tennis. They respect always the opponent. I’m not worried about that.”
Nadal has made the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park in six of the past seven years, missing only 2013 due to injury. He has reached the final twice, but has only emerged from those two five-setters triumphant once, back in 2009 against Federer.
Typically talking down his chances of emulating Laver’s achievement, Nadal was able to put an often torrid and frustrating run at the Australian Open into context.
“Is true that is important to give me another chance here in Australia in the next couple of years starting for this one. Win both, every Grand Slam twice, will be something really difficult,” he said.
“I was not lucky in this tournament in the past. I think 2006 I couldn't play the tournament. I get injury twice. Against (Andy) Murray I have to retire. Against David (Ferrer) couple years ago, well, I didn't retire, but I had broken … a little bit the muscle in the second game of the match.
“Last year I didn't have the chance to play. Is really the Grand Slam I have the more trouble during all my career … 2010 and '11, I get injury, 2012, I was able to compete at my 100 per cent again. I lost the final against (a) fantastic player (Novak Djokovic) with a great match. But is true that I am going to try my best.”
His two best years at Melbourne Park – the title run in 2009 and pushing Djokovic in the longest major final in history in 2012 – will count for little in 2014, not least because of a change in court speed, conditions Nadal has deemed the fastest he has ever played in Australia.
“I was able to play well in fast conditions in the past, but is true that I need to play my best to really have chances to be very competitive here against everybody because the conditions are a little bit faster than usual,” he said.
Having missed last year’s Australian Open with a stomach virus after his long road back from knee surgery, the next fortnight represents a solid opportunity for Nadal to cement his hold on the No.1 ranking with his nearest rival, Djokovic, having to defend his 2013 crown.
For Nadal, seeing his name atop the rankings is no longer a priority, merely an added bonus.
Making up for lost time in Melbourne is of paramount concern.
“For me the main goal is try to be here for a long time, for not only one more or two more years. So my priority is try to play as long as I can in my career.”