Practice is a serious business for Rafael Nadal. Under the watchful eye of Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, there was an intensity about the work of the world No 2 out on Court 16 here yesterday. Jason Kubler, the Australian junior who helped out as hitting partner, could no doubt dine out for months on stories of how hard the Spaniard was striking the ball.
Nadal may have dropped only two sets so far at the Australian Open, but as he prepared to face Andy Murray in the quarter-finals today he knew it was time to move up a gear. Beating Ivo Karlovic, the 6ft 10in Croat, may have been a tall order for Nadal in the fourth round, but Murray should provide a significantly tougher challenge.
"Rafa needs to play more aggressively than he did against Karlovic," Toni said after yesterday's practice session. "He'll need to do more on his serve than he did against Karlovic. He'll also need to be hitting the ball with more power in the rallies, though at the same time it's important that he just plays his own game.
"He's in good form. He's hitting his forehand well, which is important for him. But this is the most difficult match we could face at this stage. Rafa thought he was the favourite against Karlovic, but he regards Murray as the favourite here, especially as we're playing on Murray's best surface.
"Before the tournament I regarded Murray as the favourite to win the title, just like he was last year when he came here after winning in Doha. The only negative thing for Murray is that he hasn't won a Grand Slam yet, though he certainly has the quality to do that."
Nadal knows he must take the game to Murray. "I will try to play aggressively with my forehand and put him a little bit behind the baseline, maybe one metre, maybe two metres," he said. "I'm going to try to do that. If I don't, I'm going to have a nice flight home."
At 23 Nadal is only one year older than Murray, but he already has six Grand Slam titles to his name. Nevertheless, the last eight months have been his most unproductive period since he took the sport by storm by winning 11 titles in his second full season in 2005.
When he won the Rome Masters last spring all seemed well in Nadal's world, but he was already suffering from the tendinitis in his knees that was to ruin his summer. An abdominal injury that ended his US Open chances added to his problems. Despite regularly reaching the latter stages of tournaments, the Spaniard has not won a title since last May and has won just one of his last 11 matches against top 10 opponents.
There have been times in the first eight days here when the Spaniard has started to resemble the man who left Melbourne Park 12 months ago as the undisputed king of world tennis, reducing the vanquished finalist Roger Federer to tears. Nadal had three Grand Slam titles, the Olympic crown and the world No 1 ranking in his possession – but against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round in particular, there were periods when he struggled.
John Lloyd, Britain's Davis Cup captain, said: "I liked the look of Rafa over the first couple of matches. I wondered whether Andy would have enough punch. But I saw Rafa against Kohlschreiber and he had to save a lot of break points. I looked at Rafa there and I thought he is more vulnerable, right this minute, than he has been in the past."
Boris Becker, twice a winner here, believes Nadal's greatest challenge is to rebuild his strength. "I don't think Nadal is back to his best physically yet," Becker said. "He missed a couple of months last summer because of injury, and it's a long road back to full strength and full fitness.
"The problem is that it takes months and months, sometimes even years, of training to get muscles, and then they can disappear in just a few weeks. I think Nadal looks stronger now than he did in the autumn, but he's not at full strength at the moment."
Most observers here see Murray as today's favourite, but he has won only two of his nine matches against Nadal and in one of those wins, in Rotterdam last year, the Spaniard had problems with his knees. Nadal has even won four of their six matches on Murray's favoured hard courts. Murray, however, won their last Grand Slam encounter, at the 2008 US Open. No other player has reached the quarter-finals here as impressively as Murray, who has yet to drop a set, but he knows there is nothing like the pressure of playing in the final stages of a Grand Slam event. Last year Murray went out to lower-ranked opponents in each Grand Slam tournament, losing to Fernando Verdasco, Fernando Gonzalez, Andy Roddick and Marin Cilic.
Tracy Austin believes Murray has never played better at a major than in his first four matches here. "There's almost nothing he can't do with the ball because of his unique blend of power and touch," she wrote in The Australian. "He has soft hands, understands the dimensions of the court and is solid off both wings. He's brought the drop shot back into style in the men's game and hits countless winners with it."
Nevertheless, Austin said that Murray does not have a great record at the majors and reckoned that coming from a country that had not produced a male Grand Slam winner for 74 years brought its own pressures. "Being the only player with even a sliver of a chance to bring home the trophies is an immense weight," she said.
Becker believes that today's match holds the key to the whole tournament. "If Nadal wins, that will show that he's back, and I would then pick him to go on to win the title," Becker said.
"If Murray wins, I think he will go on to win the title."
Murray v Nadal: Three classic contests
*Australian Open fourth round 2007
Nadal won 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1
Murray was the more aggressive player throughout. Regularly playing serve-and-volley and attacking the net, he upset Nadal with his combination of stop volleys, drop shots and aggressive groundstrokes, which kept the Spaniard pegged to the back of the court. Murray had two points for a 3-1 lead in the fourth set, but Nadal hung on and dominated the final set to win in just under four hours.
*Wimbledon quarter-final 2008
Nadal won 6-3, 6-2, 6-4
Forty-eight hours after he had come back from the dead to beat Richard Gasquet, Murray never got going against Nadal. The Spaniard was on top from the start as Murray struggled to cope with the weight of his shots. Murray did not serve well and Nadal was quick to punish anything that was short. Murray (left) held on until 3-3 in the first set before the Spaniard raced clear to win in less than two hours.
*US Open semi-finals 2008
Murray won 6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4
Arguably the best performance of Murray's career. Murray took the game to Nadal and had the Spaniard on the back foot throughout. The match took two days to complete after a tropical storm curtailed play with Murray leading 6-2, 7-6, 2-3. Nadal took the third set on the resumption the following day but Murray took charge once again to earn a place in a Grand Slam final for the first time.