Rafa rules once again

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Everything was going swimmingly for Rafael Nadal.

And then, at 2-1 in the second set, after he had carved up Gael Monfils in the first, Nadal backpedaled to hit a forehand and, after taking a vintage Rafa rip, came up noticeably limping.

An awkward silence quickly descended on Rod Laver Stadium. Nadal was clutching his right foot and hobbled to the changeover chair and sat there for a few moments in some distress.

And that was the only drama of the entire night. Nadal shook it off, then finished off Monfils, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open. Afterward, he told reporters that health indeed is everything.

"The tougher thing is the injuries, in my opinion, no," he said. "Mental part is very important. I think what makes the mental part very hard is we play lot of months. Lot of players are ready to compete well for all months, no, for every month. That makes the competition very difficult."

There was good reason to be concerned. Nadal, after all, has a long history of injury. He missed 7½ months after the 2012 Championships at Wimbledon with a knee injury. And before that, he:

• Pulled out of the London Olympics with another knee injury in 2012.

• Withdrew from the 2012 Sony Open semis against Andy Murray with a left knee injury.

• Limped through his 2011 quarterfinal Aussie Open match in a straight-sets loss against David Ferrer with a left pulled hamstring.

• Pulled out of the 2010 Aussie Open before his quarterfinal clash with Murray with a knee injury.

And we're only going back a little more than three years. His list of maladies dates back to 2004.

But Nadal looked every bit the player we saw win two Grand Slam events a year ago. He was on the court a little more than two hours and was never broken against Monfils. Nadal, who played only one set in his opener before Bernard Tomic retired, has won all seven sets he has played so far.

By all accounts, he's looking unstoppable, isn't he?

"No," Nadal said. "At the end, no one is unstoppable. Tonight I think I played a great match. Very happy the way that I played against a very tough opponent like Gael. So that makes the level that I played tonight better because was against tough opponent. Good player like Gael always very difficult to play against.

"That's it. Just one very good day. That makes me feel confident, but I am in fourth round. That's all."

More than any other Grand Slam, the Australian Open might be the one that defines Nadal's place in history. With a win, he'd have two titles at every major. Only the great Rod Laver can say that. Nadal also would tie Pete Sampras for second all time with 14 Slam titles, which would be three behind Federer.

At 27 years old, Nadal is approaching what is considered the line of demarcation in tennis.

Since 1990, only six players over 30 have won a Slam title. And, although Nadal has a few more years until he's there, there would appear to be a sense of urgency when we consider his history of health.

"Is true that is important to give me another chance here in Australia in the next couple of years starting for this one," Nadal said. "Win both, every Grand Slam twice, will be something really difficult. I going to try to do it in the next couple of years, but knowing that always is a big challenge."

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