Long before it was national headlines, the Nadal-Djokovic Rivalry began as they faced off in the semi-finals of the 2008 Olympics.
It may only be the first major of the season, but in an Olympic year, it is never too early to think of the possibility of someone completing their Career or even more unlikely Calendar Golden Slam.
For someone who is striving to prove that he can be No. 1 in the world again, 2012 could be Rafa's chance to do it all. Already in possession of the Career Golden Slam, he is already appearing in the Aussie Open final and is currently looking and playing as healthy as he has ever been.
If ever it was time for Nadal to re-claim his world No. 1 ranking, it would be now, with that journey first beginning in the finals at the year's first calendar slam.
The journey to the almost impossible Calendar Golden Slam began in Melbourne, Australia. Before his first-round match even started, there was talk that Nadal's injuries were going to get the best of him once again. As the rounds continued and Nadal breezed past all of his opponents, the talk changed. It was no longer injuries that were going to best the 10-time grand slam winner but rather an old rival in Roger Federer.
Nadal did what almost everyone expected and made it to the semifinals of the draw, where he faced up against Federer in what had promised to be another block-buster match in the history of this rivalry. Although it wasn't a finals rematch, it still had all of the intensity of one. Nadal seemed to best Federer at every turn however. He was quicker, craftier and played all around better tennis en route to his four-set win.
It wasn't so much the great tennis he played that had doubters shaking their heads in confusion. No, it was the heart, passion and intensity he had during the entire match. His determined effort coupled with his inspired tennis, took all doubt out of people's minds that Nadal still loved the game and was still a force to be reckoned with.
If Nadal continues to play in the Australian Open final, the way he has been playing all tournament long, it will mark his best chance to upset Djokovic and win the season's first Slam. Nadal is playing amazing tennis right now at the level some even liken to the tennis he played in 2010 when he won three of the four majors. The only difference is in 2010, Novak had yet to really enter the dominant stage he's in now. He owns the head-to-head with Rafa including having won the last six against him, many of which were in major finals.
If Nadal does manage to beat Djokovic, he will have a great chance to win again going into the French as they don't call him, "The King of Clay" for nothing. Statistically, the French is Nadal's best major and Djokovic's worst. It is also the only major that's keeping Djokovic away from his own Career Grand Slam and from last year's Calendar Slam. It is likely that the 2012 French will once again be a final between these two, but Nadal should have an edge and should prevent the Djoker from getting his 5th major.
With two majors down and two championship titles in hand, Nadal will go into Wimbledon. For Nadal, Wimbledon could be a big question mark. Sure, he's playing great tennis now, but the big question will be if his knee can hold up at this point in the season.
Nadal should probably take it light after the French and only play in a few tournaments. In order to go into Wimbledon and beat Djokovic or even Federer, who even now shouldn't be counted out at his career best surface and championship, Nadal is going to have to be fresh. He will have to work through six potentially grueling rounds in order to reach the finals, and although he has dominated nearly anyone he has ever faced, he would be best served to play in short and less strenuous matches.
How Will Nadal Finish in 2012?
Saying the Nadal can win the year's first three majors isn't exactly a bold statement, but it isn't one I would say is the obvious answer either. He will still have to contend with Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray as well as any potential albeit unlikely men's dark horses that could emerge. If he does manage to go 3-3 however, the stage would normally be set in the U.S. Open.
That said, because it is an Olympic year, battling for the gold medal to which Nadal is the defending champion, will take place first. In an even more interesting twist, the Olympic tennis will take place right back at the All England Club, where just a few months prior, Wimbledon will have been contested. For Nadal, his rank and state as defending champion, should easily give him a spot in the qualifying 56. It is from here, that he will have to work his way up to defend his gold medal.
For Nadal and every other player on the tour, it will be three grueling months as it is Wimbledon in June, the Olympics in July and right into the U.S. Open in August. It is unlikely one man will win all three of these, and it's certain the only players who will survive past the Olympics to have good U.S. Open results are those who have the most fitness and stamina.
Nadal has both of these, but as always, the worry is his health. With three months of high-level competition and really no break, it will be hard for Nadal's body to hold up.
If he does manage to make it through Wimbledon and Wimbledon part two at the Olympics with the title and gold medal, it will come down to the U.S. Open for Nadal to become the first player to complete the Calendar Golden Slam and if he does that, it might be enough for people to reconsider Federer as the best of all time.
In order for this to happen, Nadal will have to make it through to the finals, and he will likely have to beat Djokovic again. This time, Djokovic will have a decided edge as he was nearly unstoppable last year at the U.S. Open. In my opinion, a potential U.S. Open finals will be Nadal's toughest test all season, well that and his challenge to stay healthy.
It will be an uphill battle for him to beat his biggest opponent, and the only one at that, who can boast a substantial winning record against him. It will be tough to do it once in the Australian, let alone do it a potential three more times. I do think though that if Nadal stays healthy and passionate and continues to play his best tennis, that he can in fact beat Djokovic and go 4-4 in winning majors on the season.
The Calendar Golden Slam could be in reach for Nadal, and it will all begin in Melbourne tonight with the Australian Open finals.