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Rafael Nadal Suffers Setback in Quest to Overtake Roger Federer

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COMMENTARY | After yet another thrashing of Roger Federer in a Grand Slam setting, prospects for Rafael Nadal's career were looking brighter than ever.

The Spaniard was scheduled to meet Stanislas Wawrinka in the finals of the 2014 Australian Open, a player that Nadal had beaten 12 consecutive times without losing a set. After facing Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the majority of his Slam finals, there appeared to finally be some reprieve for the hard-working player from Mallorca.

A victory in the final Down Under would yield Nadal his 14th career Slam and tie him with legend Pete Sampras for the second-most majors in the history of the game. More importantly, the successful completion of the Australian Open would put the French Open in focus, an event that has virtually become synonymous with Nadal's name.

In the wake of his 23rd victory over Federer in 33 tries, Nadal looked poised to collect not only one but two valuable trophies to kickoff the new season. A hypothetical total of 15 that would have put him only two behind Federer and make Nadal the first man since Jim Courier (1992) to win the first two Slams of the year.

Under that theoretical, yet highly probable scenario, the drama at Wimbledon could have potentially been the most intriguing of this era. Nadal on the brink of his 16th career Slam and with a chance of extending the first legitimate run at a calendar Slam since Courier -- my oh my, what a season it might have been.

The excitement of such monumental stakes clearly rubbed off on others participating in the festivities of the first Grand Slam of 2014. Pete Sampras made the long haul down to Australia to personally award this year's trophy. With Nadal favored to accept that record-tying trophy from Sampras himself, the event had destiny written all over it.

Pete Sampras was actually so impressed with Nadal's drubbing of Federer and overall form in Melbourne that he even backed the Mallorcan to eventually equal or take the Slam record. Sampras reportedly told BBC on the eve of the final, "He's not looking at 14 (grand slams), he's looking beyond. Realistically he could well get to 17 or 18 majors when it's all said and done. He's a great credit to the sport."

Whether sage words, or some sort of cosmic jinx, won't be known for some time.

As it stands, Nadal suffered a shocking loss to Stanilas Wawrinka the next day and looked like a husk of the player he had been against Federer in the semifinals. Likely through a combination of Wawrinka's inspired play and Nadal's physical limitations, those hopeful projections crumbled to the ground along with Nadal as he received treatment on his back.

Given the historic stakes, it's no great wonder Nadal looked to be tearing up prior to the completion of the match. At a point when Nadal typically would have been digging in deeper to push his opponent closer to the abyss, the Spaniard looked to have already accepted the inevitable -- as well as the ramifications of another tough loss at what Rafa calls his "unluckiest" Slam.

While it's impossible to know whether Nadal's consecutive losses (he missed 2013) in the Australian Open final will ultimately keep him from surpassing Federer, they will no doubt make it that much harder. Nadal lost a heartbreaking final to Novak Djokovic at the same tournament in 2012, a match in which he led during the decisive fifth set.

Having played slightly better in 2012, and stayed slightly healthier in 2014, Nadal could truly be standing at the brink of history already in 2014. Instead, Nadal remains at 13 Slams and counting, with renewed health concerns back at his doorstep.

ESPN.com reported after the Australian Open that Rafael Nadal wouldn't likely miss any scheduled events due to his back problem Down Under. However, the specter of injury has certainly returned and lurks in the shadows of an unknown future.

After a swing though North America for the important Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, California and Miami, Florida, in March, the men's professional tour will embark upon the European clay season -- always one of the highlights for Nadal. Back on comfortable soil, Nadal will no doubt excel as he has in the past.

Depending on his health, Rafa should also be favored to win his ninth French Open title in 10 tries when that clay-court tournament kicks off at the end of May.

However, Nadal will need more than just a few more French Open titles to eventually tie or pass Federer in terms of total Grand Slam hardware. Amidst his 12th season as a professional player, Nadal is thus far averaging about 1.5 Slams per year since winning his first in 2005. Sitting at 13 and looking up at 17, Nadal would theoretically need to continue playing for approximately three more years to equal/surpass Federer's current total.

Given the varying range of Nadal's physical state, there's absolutely no telling how much longer he can play on tour. Nadal could tweak a knee and miss extensive time at any moment, or he could power on for five more years without a setback. Based on the historical pattern, though, it's more likely that Nadal experiences at least a minor interruption due to injury at some point in the future.

That reality means that every opportunity Nadal gets at a Slam title is precious, just as his recent chance in Australia certainly was. Coming off a huge victory at the US Open in 2013, Nadal would have picked up a truckload of momentum with a follow-up victory on hard court in Australia. Instead, Rafa was forced back to his home in Mallorca to contemplate his body's latest letdown.

Hopefully, while Nadal will mourn this loss appropriately, he'll realize that not all is lost. Even though the relentless Spaniard lost the final against Wawrinka, he did soundly thump Federer, and in doing so kept him from a chance at No. 18. So while Nadal didn't gain ground in the tournament vis-a-vis Federer, he didn't lose any, either.

Although the hard-hitting Spaniard now has a history of letdowns in Australia, he also has an even more remarkable history of rehabilitating his body and subsequently rebounding stronger than ever.

While Nadal suffered a minor setback on his quest to overtake Federer, it doesn't look to be significant enough to completely derail his lofty aspirations. At this point, it only looks to have delayed them.

Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. Tweet him @AndrewProchnow.

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