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Rafael Nadal aiming for fourth straight Slam; Serena Williams is not

January 14, 2011 |  2:30 pm

Raf_240 The Australian Open is about to begin, showing up at all hours of the day and night on our televisions (ESPN's family of networks) beginning Sunday.

There are obvious story lines, the most compelling being the chance for Rafael Nadal to win a "Serena Slam."

Kidding there. This will be a "Rafa Slam" if the 24-year-old Spaniard can win his fourth major tournament in a row.

His streak started at last year's French Open and since then Nadal has stylishly taken home titles at the French Open, Wimbledon and (for the first time in his career) the U.S. Open.

In tennis, one of the greatest accomplishments is to win all four major tournaments in a calendar year. The last man to do it was Rod Laver in 1969, and the last woman was Steffi Graf in 1988 (Graf also won the Olympics that year to achieve what was called a Golden Slam).

If you can't do that, you can do what Serena Williams did in 2002 and 2003. She won four in a row as well, starting with the 2002 French Open and ending with the 2003 Australian Open, a "Serena Slam."

ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said Friday that there are questions about Nadal's health because he was ill last week. "I'm concerned about how he's feeling and recovers from a pretty serious virus," she said. "It's taking a little bit longer than a 24-year-old might like it to take. If he's not 100% healthy, he's the co-favorite with [Roger] Federer. If he's 100% healthy, I think he's a slight favorite.”

Fellow analyst Darren Cahill said he considers Nadal "the clear favorite." Cahill said, "The fact is Rafa has won the last three majors, he likes the surface, he likes the tennis balls, the conditions, the medium pace, and if he's not 100% healthy yet, he's in a good section of the draw to play his way in. What I like about Rafa is he's not scared of any hurdles put in from of him. And since he won the U.S. Open, he's riding an enormous wave of confidence. For the tournament's sake, I hope we get a Nadal-Federer final."

With defending champion Williams into her seventh month of recovery from a mysterious foot injury and with top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki still without a major tournament victory, Cahill suggested that there are as many as 20 women who might win the title. That kind of nebulous uncertainty might not be the best thing for the game, and Shriver said she thinks that Kim Clijsters, even though she was a stunned third-round loser at the Australian last year, sent out with a stunning 6-1, 6-0 beating by Nadia Petrova, is still the women's best shot to have a "name" champion.

Fellow Belgian Justine Henin is back, again, playing her first major since leaving Wimbledon with an elbow injury last summer. And somehow Venus Williams, who hasn't won one of the big four tournaments since 2008 and who has never won the Australian Open, is seeded No. 4 and so will be considered a favorite.

-- Diane Pucin

Photo: Rafael Nadal. Credit: Dennis M. Sabangan / European Press Agency.