-- MELBOURNE, Australia -- Number crunching is part of the business. We search next level to ascertain what works and what doesn't for athletes and teams. But at the end of the day, the steady stream of stats can be little more than circumstantial.
Take, for instance, a certain Spaniard. On Wednesday night, Rafael Nadal didn't exactly light up the scoreboard (in a good way) with his 53 unforced errors and seven double faults, but what he did do was ace the conviction category. Nadal proved once again that heart and character can win matches.
All that said, Nadal was visibly (and admittedly) worn down after his five-set battle with Tim Smyczek. Which leaves the 14-time Grand Slam winner in a bit of a precarious position moving forward. Conversely, his Big Four brethren have looked pretty good.
But how good? We decided to rank the Big Four after two rounds of play here at the Australian Open. Spoiler alert: Rafa is not No. 1.
1. Novak Djokovic : World ranking No. 1
You know the sense of satisfaction you get when a vending machine accepts your dollar bill on the first try, or the feeling of freedom from wearing shorts for the first time of the season? That's the kind of pleasure Djokovic probably feels every waking hour -- except, of course, those hideous middle-of-the-night diaper changes, which he's rumored to have perfected. Since arriving in Melbourne, Djokovic has rhapsodized about how perfectly things are going. Aside from his new baby, Djokovic married his longtime girlfriend just over six months ago. "Completely fulfilled" is how he described his life. Oh, and it should be noted that through two rounds in Australia, Djokovic is acting like a world No. 1. He has spent only 3 hours, 13 minutes on court so far, the most efficient effort out of the Big Four.
2. Andy Murray : World ranking No. 6
Granted, there has been a pretty big gulf between Murray and his first two opponents, Yuki Bhambri (No. 317 in the world) and Marinko Matosevic (No. 81). But so far, we've seen a Murray eerily similar to the one from his crackerjack days circa 2012-13. He more or less toyed with Matosevic for the entirety of their second-round match, dropping only six games along the way. Murray was dominant behind his first serve (winning 85 percent of his points) and converted 12 of 13 points at the net. Murray, who looks to be in superior shape one year after undergoing back surgery, is a three-time runner-up in Australia. And judging by the way the two Big Four members in his half of the draw, Federer and Nadal, have looked so far, the Scot may very well find himself back on center court on the final day of this event yet again.
3. Roger Federer : World ranking No. 2
Give the man a break for starting off slowly in his last match. At Federer's dotage, the Simone Bolellis of the world can catch you off guard. Coincidentally, Simone Bolelli did catch Federer off guard in the opening set of their second-round encounter Wednesday. Federer was troubled by a finger issue early on, which he described as odd, weird and numb. But the feeling returned -- to Federer's game, anyway -- as he took the next three sets without any drama. For what it's worth (and it's worth a lot), Federer served great in that match, converting nearly 70 percent of his first deliveries. He socked 15 aces for good measure. Despite the slow start, Fed has dropped only one set through two rounds.
4. Rafael Nadal: World ranking No. 3
The good news is that Rafael Nadal always seems to fight through the pain barrier. The bad news is that he's often in pain. This is a guy who could have his own page in the ATP World Tour media guide dedicated to the litany of maladies that have piled up over the years, setbacks that likely kept him from catching Federer on the all-time Slams win list. Against Smyczek, Nadal found himself down two sets to one and visibly unwell at times. That he figured out how to galvanize himself during the most dire moments is a testament to his unflagging will. Still, Nadal needed 4 hours, 12 minutes to stop Smyczek, and while attrition is a noble attribute, it's not going to help Nadal's physical well-being moving forward.