Nadal, Djokovic set for epic Aussie Open clash
They boast the greatest rivalry in major tennis history - the only two men to have clashed in all four grand slam finals - and now the stage is set for a sequel to their epic six-hour Australian Open decider in 2012.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two tennis gladiators set to deliver a Melbourne Park encore two years in the making.
After missing last year's Open with more knee troubles, Nadal is back for the season-opening slam as world No.1 thanks to an extraordinary 10-title return in 2013.
The Spaniard relieved Djokovic of his top ranking with tour victories in Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Montreal, Cincinnati and grand slam numbers 12 and 13 in Paris and New York.
Nadal won indoors and out, on clay and cement and, during one particularly relentless run, 62 of 64 matches in a spectacular, record-setting $15 million season.
And now, after opening 2014 in triumphant fashion with yet another title in Doha, the 27-year-old is looking to strip Djokovic of his Australian Open crown as well - two years after the Serb denied Nadal in the longest grand slam final in history, a five-hour, 53-minute baseline slugfest that finished at two o'clock Monday morning.
"If I am playing the way that I played in the first set, I think I will be very competitive (in Australia)," said Nadal after his 6-1 6-7 (7-5) 6-2 victory over Gael Monfils in the Doha decider.
To conquer Djokovic, though, Nadal will need to be more than competitive.
Djokovic has been invincible the past three months, winning 24 consecutive matches since succumbing to Nadal in the US Open final and avenging that defeat with a crushing straight-sets defeat of the Spaniard in the World Tour finals in London.
"I'm full of confidence on the court," said Djokovic, a four-time champion and winner of the past three titles in Melbourne.
Like Roger Federer, 26-year-old Djokovic has the chance to become the first man in the 45-year professional era to land five Open crowns.
Nadal, too, is chasing more tennis history.
The 27-year-old can join Australian greats Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as only the third player ever to win all four grand slam events at least twice.
He can also draw level with Pete Sampras in equal second place on the men's all-time grand slam leaderboard with 14 majors, three less than Federer.
Federer, now 32 and seeded sixth this year after enduring his first season since 2002 without reaching a grand slam final, insists he's not done yet.
"I trained probably harder than all the guys ranked ahead of me in the off-season, because they went off to play exhibitions, like I did last year," he said.
"I did full-on months, which I haven't done in a long time."
The Swiss maestro craves an 18th major, five long years after landing his fourth title at Melbourne Park.
"The thrill of holding up a trophy and the thrill of being before match point is an amazing one," Federer said.
"That's probably deep down why I'm playing."
Three-time finalist Andy Murray is the wildcard in the leading pack.
The Wimbledon champion hasn't played since undergoing back surgery after last year's US Open, but can't be discounted.
World No.5 Juan Martin del Potro was the only player to beat Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray in 2013 - but bizarrely enters the season-opening slam with only two racquets after Wilson ran out of his weapon of mass destruction.