Friends off the court, Nadal and Murray are set to collide in 2013.
The drama of the 2013 Australian Open may be over, but the drama of the full 2013 tennis season is about to kick into high gear. The next Grand Slam draw should include the missing piece of the "Big Four" in Melbourne, Rafael Nadal.
Novak Djokovic claimed his Open era record third straight Australian Open title against Andy Murray on the final weekend in Melbourne. A matchup that featured the same two players as the Grand Slam immediately preceding it—albeit with the opposite result.
As Nadal prepares to return to competitive tennis, the focus now shifts to the French Open—which happens to be the Spaniard's dominant venue. Having won there seven times in the last eight years, Nadal should be favored heading into Roland Garros, despite the fact that his world ranking will potentially yield him a much lower seed than he is accustomed to.
The return of Rafa to the men's tour will certainly super-charge an electric tennis circuit with several overarching dramas already in play. Of course, Roger Federer's pursuit of his next Grand Slam victory will always be a prominent factor—this year is no different. And with Nadal returning to tennis, the question as to whether he can add to his 11 Grand Slam titles and narrow the gap between himself and Federer will of course be a continuing theme.
The Djoker, now with six titles and within striking distance of Nadal, will surely continue to assert his influence. Djoker's campaign at the French Open this year will be especially interesting, given it's the one feather still missing in his career Grand Slam hat.
In the immediate term, however, the health of Rafael Nadal will provide the gravity around which the tennis world orbits. How will this whirling dervish respond in body and mind once he resumes play on the often grueling professional circuit?
And, if healthy, how will his return affect the standings? Andy Murray, a player who took full advantage of the opportunity afforded to him by Nadal's absence, has to be wondering the same thing. It's this potential matchup, between Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, that I think provides the most interesting storyline in the immediate term.
Prior to Nadal's injury, he and Djokovic had met in four straight Grand Slam finals, spanning the 2011 Championships at Wimbledon through the 2012 French Open. Fans were treated to two sensational matches during this time frame, including a nail-biting, drama soaked adventure under the sun in Melbourne, as well as an old fashioned slugfest in the mud of Roland Garros.
These memorable clashes clearly left both players feeling woozy, with Nadal falling out of the circuit altogether and Djokovic failing to claim another Slam (or medal) during the remainder of 2012.
Four consecutive Grand Slam finals featuring the same pair of players is an Open Era record and not easily repeatable. Or is it? During the time that Nadal has been on the sidelines, Andy Murray appears to have stepped up to the challenge, facing off against Djokovic in the last two consecutive Grand Slams.
The question is whether Djokovic and Murray are destined to continue this trend for a third, and maybe fourth, consecutive final? Or will Nadal reclaim his position opposite Djokovic on the biggest stages?
These are clearly difficult questions to answer—not least of all because they are completely subjective—especially given that Nadal's health is an X-factor. Those that know the game clearly recognize how important it is for Nadal to feel 100 percent confident in the physical part of his game—so much of his success can be attributed to his ability to wear down opponents through incredible defense, playing every point as if it's the last.
My assumption is that if Toni Nadal is allowing his nephew and student to return to the game, then there must be a high degree of confidence in Rafa's physical well-being. But, of course, there is no guarantee that Nadal can continue to avoid surgery, which may eventually be required.
The latter question is even more difficult to answer. That being whether Murray can maintain his current spot on tour with Nadal back in the mix. Head-to-head, Nadal and Murray have a somewhat one-sided rivalry, with Nadal holding a significant edge at 13-5 against Murray. That includes a 6-2 record against Murray in Grand Slam competition.
Given these statistics, it seems clear that taking Nadal out of the equation should benefit Murray. And this is the exact outcome we have observed. With Nadal nursing his ailments, Murray claimed a gold medal in London (against Federer) and his first Grand Slam trophy in New York (against Djokovic).
Without question, these are impressive results and suggest great strides in Murray's game—it's important to note the addition of Ivan Lendl to his team. However, the results also beg the question: Could Murray have claimed that much hardware with a healthy Nadal playing in those tournaments? It's impossible to say, but history suggests no.
In my opinion, this creates some palpable tension as we approach the second quarter of the Slam season. We have seen the current rendition of Andy Murray overcome both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to win big titles.
But Rafael Nadal is a different beast altogether. For starters, he is the only player of the "Big Four" that has a winning record against each of the other three. And he has simply owned Murray. Clearly, the dirt in France won't be the easiest place for Murray to assert his new position in the rankings, partially because it has never been his best venue and partially because it is, without question, Nadal's best venue.
Arguably, the battle between Murray and Nadal will dictate the flow of men's tennis in 2013. It could be the difference between the recent tantalizing finals observed between Nadal and Djokovic, as opposed to the comparatively vanilla contests decided by Murray and Djokovic in New York and Melbourne.
Roger Federer is of course an amazing champion, and one of the best players ever. Anytime he enters the draw, he has an excellent chance of winning the tournament. However, despite his lofty achievements in 2012, he only appeared in one Grand Slam final. In the last 12 Grand Slam events, Federer has won a single title.
At 31, going on 32, the tank is unfortunately creeping closer to empty, not full. Novak Djokovic has appeared in six of the last seven Grand Slam finals and there doesn't seem to be much reason to expect anything different in the near future. With the 2013 Australian Open already in his back pocket, Djoker has to be favored to at least reach the finals in the remaining Slams this year.
That leaves Nadal or Murray to fill the void on the other side of the court. Rafael Nadal played in five straight Grand Slam finals before injuring his knee and suffering an early exit from Wimbledon last year. Murray has reached the finals of each Slam since Nadal went out. Coincidence? Highly doubtful. Going forward, something has to give—it will be either Murray or Nadal breaking, not bending.
An added wrinkle is that these two players enjoy a well-known friendly relationship off the court. But those warm feelings were kindled in a known world order—one in which Nadal was "the guy" on court. Their head-to-head matchups this year should have significant gravity, which will hopefully provide an excellent chance for fans to view some superb tennis. But, there will also be undercurrents between the two that are less typical in higher-level matches, adding to the intrigue.
Their duels in 2013 may be reminiscent of two other well-known athletes that enjoyed a friendly rivalry (albeit fictional). As we prepare for Nadal and Murray to lock horns, echoes of Apollo Creed's last words to Rocky Balboa in Rocky III seem especially fitting, "Ding, Ding. Come on...Come on!"