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Even absent, Nadal an Aussie factor

MELBOURNE, Australia — With another Australian Open beginning Monday, the addition and subtraction continue at the top of the men's game.

Though Andy Murray appeared to transform the lead pack into a true Big Four last year by winning the Olympics and the U.S. Open, the pack is back to being a Big Three with Rafael Nadal's layoff because of injury and illness well into its seventh month.

"It's like missing one of the lead singers of a band," coach and TV analyst Brad Gilbert said. "And it's not like (Nadal is) 32 years old. He's in the prime of his career (he is 26). … Obviously, it gives an opportunity for more other guys, but I just miss seeing Nadal compete."

Murray, often thwarted by Nadal in the late stages of majors, was a beneficiary of his absence in London and New York. Seeded third at the Australian Open, he landed in Roger Federer's half of the draw Friday, leaving defending champion Novak Djokovic with David Ferrer, the fourth seed, in his half and Tomas Berdych in his quarter.

The question is whether Nadal's absence makes it easier for an outsider to win with Djokovic, Federer and Murray in the mix.

"I still think you're going to have to beat two of those guys at least to win a major, so the equation is still the same," said Roger Rasheed, a veteran Australian coach now working with a leading outsider, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

"Does 'Rafa' being out help anyone think, 'Well, now is my chance?' I guess it depends a bit on the work you've done."

On the women's side, it also isn't easy to see any outsider staging a meaningful uprising with Serena Williams, 31, fresh off her latest bravura performance in winning the Brisbane International last week.

"I think you can only go by what we saw last season, and I think 'motivated' is the key word for Serena," said Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion and now an ESPN analyst.

"(Motivation) has kind of gone up and down with her during her career, because quite frankly she has such a zest for life that she had other interests and she hasn't been as tunnel-visioned as probably champions are. But now I think … she realizes she's older and doesn't have a lot of time. So I think she's eyeing the number of Grand Slams and eyeing history, and I think she has in her mind that she has two or three vintage years left in her."

Margaret Court holds the career Grand Slam singles titles record with 24. Steffi Graf is second with 22, followed by Helen Wills Moody (19), Evert and Martina Navratilova (both 18), then Williams with 15.

.fast facts

Australian Open

What: First Grand Slam of the season

When/where: Monday-Jan. 27, Melbourne

Top seeds: Men — 1. Novak Djokovic, 2. Roger Federer, 3. Andy Murray. Women — 1. Victoria Azarenka, 2. Maria Sharapova, 3. Serena Williams

On TV: 6:30 tonight, 3 a.m. Monday, ESPN2

Even absent, Nadal an Aussie factor 01/12/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 12, 2013 9:37pm]
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