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Rafael Nadal

More than 6300 minutes. That’s how long Rafael Nadal has spent on court in eight previous singles campaigns at Melbourne Park.

It’s a number that highlights some of the qualities that fans have come to love about the Spaniard. Hard-working, powerful and almost freakishly athletic, Nadal is also the owner of a fierce competitive spirit that keeps him on court long after many others might have wilted.  

And yet it’s also a number that’s accompanied by a curious sidebar: among 13 Grand Slam titles, the Australian Open is Nadal’s least successful event, the only major in which he hasn’t claimed multiple victories.

Or at least not yet.

Nadal’s prolific success at other Grand Slams points to the near certainty of him adding more Australian Opens to the one he claimed with a five-set final win over Roger Federer in 2009.

Eight French Open titles are more than any other man has ever won at the same Grand Slam; the two titles he’s claimed at both Wimbledon and the US Open are similarly impressive when you consider Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Federer, at various stages, on the way to claiming them.

Not that it takes a major to bring out Nadal’s best. “Every tournament, even if is Grand Slam or Masters 1000 or 500 or 250, I play every match with the same intensity,” he noted early at Australian Open 2014 of a style that has reaped 61 career titles so far. 

“It's not because I'm playing a Grand Slam I'm going to play with more focus or more intensity. I try to be always the same; highest level possible.”

It’s a spirit that makes for breathtaking tennis, but the flipside is the high physical toll that Nadal’s go-for-everything style can take. It started to show in mid-2009 when tendinitis in both knees sidelined the Spaniard for nine weeks. A similar problem kept him off tour for seven months in 2012, creating fears such injuries would eventually prove career-threatening.

Fans needn’t have worried, at least not in the short term. A virus kept him out of Australian Open 2013 and thus delayed his comeback for several more frustrating weeks, but Nadal quickly made up for lost time when he was back on tour. A personal-best 10 titles for the season included the French and US Opens, helping a spectacular return to world No.1 by season’s end.

It’s considered by many as one of the most impressive comebacks in the history of tennis, and there’d be a stunning sense of completion if he could continue it with success at one of his favourite Grand Slams.

“I really enjoy a lot playing here. The crowd, even if you play against Australian, you feel that they respect every player,” said the gracious Nadal after outclassing rising local hope Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round. “They know about tennis. They understand the sport.”

They understand history-making performances too and Nadal has featured in several of them at Melbourne Park. In 2012, he and defending champion Novak Djokovic fought for an agonising yet enthralling five hours and 53 minutes in a record-breaking decider, the Serb eventually emerging the 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5 winner. It’s one of many Australian Open epics in which Nadal has featured, highlighting his intense hunger to add to his Grand Slam collection here.

Tonight, Nadal resumes a famous rivalry with Roger Federer, which is considered by many as the most compelling in recent tennis history. They’ve contested 32 professional matches, Nadal victorious in 22 of them.

Should Nadal claim another victory in the semifinal and go on to win the title on Sunday, it would be his 14th major, only three shy of the record 17 Federer has claimed. And then there’d another record within reach, perhaps even the coveted calendar year Grand Slam that the legendary Rod Laver last year suggested is another Nadal possibility.

The Spaniard, ever-humble, would no doubt tell you that is still talk for another day. Having spent so much time on court at Melbourne Park already, he understands that among many qualities essential to his prolific success, patience could be the most important of all. 

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Post-Tournament
Tuesday, 21 October 2014
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