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Four straight for 'Rafa?'

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

The merits of a "Rafa Slam" versus Rocket's Grand Slam were being debated well before Rafael Nadal arrived in Australia in pursuit of a fourth consecutive major title, something not achieved in men's tennis since Rod Laver won all four in 1969.

Analysts such as Jim Courier and Brad Gilbert think winning the Australian Open would cap Nadal's victories at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and give the 24-year-old Spaniard at least equal status with Laver because he's done it on three surfaces and against tougher competition.

Chief among those competitors is Roger Federer, who has won a record 16 Grand Slam tournaments but has been thwarted, by Nadal, in his own bid for four in a row.

Laver is impressed by Nadal's run, but contends the calendar can't be ignored.

"He's got three under his belt, and he's playing well," Laver told The Associated Press. "There's a good chance he could pull it off. But it's not a Grand Slam, certainly. ... People will say, 'He's going for a Grand Slam.' And I say, 'No, he's not doing that.' That wasn't the way this whole thing was set up.

"It starts in January and ends in September; starts with the Australian Open and ends with the U.S. Open. Still, what he's trying to do is a great effort. It's not a Grand Slam, but it's a great effort. It's uncanny that no one has put it all together and won four in a row."

Andy Murray, the man Federer beat at Melbourne Park for the last Australian title, sees Nadal's run differently.

"It's incredible," Murray said. "A lot of people are saying, 'Well, it's not all in the one calendar year.' But I don't really think that makes any difference. If you hold all four 'Slams' at one time, it's an incredible achievement. Even three in a row is amazing.

"That's what all of us are competing against. He's one of the best players ever, if not the best, and he deserves to be No. 1 in the world, and if he does win the Australian Open -- which I hope he doesn't -- then it would be incredible.

"It is already an incredible achievement for what he's done at his age, but it would be amazing."

Federer came close to repeating Laver's feat in 2006 and 2007, when the Swiss player's only Grand Slam losses were against Nadal at the French Open.

"It's not extra pressure, for me it's extra motivation," Nadal said at the Qatar Open last week. "The pressure is every day to play well and keep winning matches and I don't think (about) winning (the) Australian Open immediately."

Federer is not ready to give up his title.

"It's a special Australian Open with me being the defending champion," Federer said. "Rafa going for his fourth (Grand Slam title), so obviously the focus is going to be on the two of us. Tennis is really going to be exciting down in Australia."

Nadal will begin his quest for his fourth straight Grand Slam with a first-round match against Marcos Daniel of Brazil.

Serena Williams completed what she called her "Serena Slam" of four consecutive major titles at the 2003 Australian Open, but the woman who has won five of the last eight finals at Melbourne will be missing next week as she continues to recover from a foot injury.

In her absence, three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters is shaping up as the favorite for the Australian Open title with some convincing wins at the Sydney International, where she has advanced to the final.

"I don't think about it like that at all, (favoritism) is something that is put on you from the outside and it doesn't change anything in my mind," Clijsters said. "I am very happy with the preparation that I've had and have worked hard in the offseason and that's the only thing I can do from my side."

Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Sam Stosur have started the year slowly in tuneup tournaments, while Justine Henin is still coming back from injury. Top-seeded Wozniacki will face Gisela Dulko of Argentina in a first-round match, while Henin drew a qualifier.

If Nadal wins four straight he will have done it across clay, grass and hard courts.