History is beckoning but Rafael Nadal is not paying attention. The prospect of the 24-year-old Spaniard becoming only the third man ever to hold all four Grand Slam titles is the talk of this year's Australian Open, which begins tomorrow, but Nadal himself insists that he feels under no more pressure than normal.
"This may be the only opportunity in my career to do this, but that's not the reason I will feel any pressure here," he said yesterday. "The pressure is just the same at every Grand Slam event. You want to play well in the important tournaments. Whether I win a fourth Grand Slam in a row is not something that's on my mind. What's on my mind is trying to play well, trying to start the season playing well. Then we will see what's going on."
Nadal said he considered the task of winning four Grand Slams in a row to be "almost impossible". Asked how special it would be, he replied: "I think it's better if we continue with another question. Seriously, I can't answer this because I haven't thought about it. If it does happen, I'm sure that I will be more happy at winning here because it's the Australian Open rather than because it's the fourth Grand Slam title in a row."
While most commentators regard Nadal as the favourite to win here, he has not had the best of starts to the year. He barely had a break during the off-season and was suffering from a virus during his first tournament at the Qatar Open. He said he had been feeling better since arriving in Australia but could not be sure how he would feel once he started playing matches.
"After what I had in Doha, I've felt a little bit more tired than usual when I've been practising and I've been sweating more than ever," he said. "I'm feeling better, but I don't think I'm perfect."
The world No 1 has already won the Australian Open once, having beaten Roger Federer in the final two years ago, and finds the hard courts here easier than those in New York, where he won the US Open for the first time last September. "You can put a little bit more topspin on the ball here and the courts are a little bit slower," he said. "But I am seriously starting to wonder whether it's better for me to play on faster or slower courts."
What areas of his game would Nadal hope to work on this year? "Everything," he said. "My serve can still improve a lot. I think I am serving better, but it's never going to be enough. You can play more aggressively. You can play more inside the court. You can go more times to the net. You can return a little bit more aggressively. You can play longer. You can play closer to the lines.
"In tennis you can improve all your career. That is something I've always tried to do when I wake up every morning and go to practise. My goal is to improve – not to just go to practise. That's why I am here. If some day I lost that feeling, maybe I wouldn't come back to this tournament."
Nadal is already one of only seven men to have won all four of the major titles in tennis, but Don Budge and Rod Laver are the only players who have held all four at the same time. While most traditionalists insist that only winning all four in the same year can be regarded as a Grand Slam, the constitution of the International Tennis Federation, the sport's governing body, says that simply holding the four titles at the same time is good enough.
When Federer was asked for his opinion on the debate, the Swiss said that it would be "amazing" if Nadal held all four titles, although he added: "It's very close, but it's not the calendar Grand Slam."
Andy Murray, however, rejected any idea that if Nadal won four in a row it should be regarded as a lesser feat because the tournaments spanned two seasons. "I think holding four Grand Slams is one of the best achievements in sport," he said, before adding with a smile: "And I really hope he doesn't do it."