Unlike many professional athletes, Rafael Nadal pulls no punches. After a crushing loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2011 Wimbledon final -- the fifth of six straight defeats at the hands of the lean and hungry Serb -- Nadal told this truth:
"Seriously, I lose because I am playing against the best player of the moment, the best player of the world tomorrow, and I am the second. And when you play against these players and they are playing unbelievable, the normal thing is [to] lose."
And then he added: "My experience says this level is not forever. Even for me when I was last year winning three Grand Slams, my level of last year is not forever. Probably the level of Novak of today is not forever."
Djokovic, of course, would maintain that ludicrous level for one more major, beating Nadal in the U.S. Open final. But, as Nadal predicted, Djokovic came back to the field, crashing and burning in his last four events, including an awkward retirement to Juan Martin del Potro in the Davis Cup semifinals. Djokovic says he's rested and ready for action in Melbourne. Oddsmakers have installed him as the significant favorite.
We shall see. Winning three majors -- even reaching three Grand Slam finals -- in a single year is exceedingly difficult. Backing it up with another finals three-peat is even tougher. In the past 50-plus years, a handful of men have done it. Before Nadal's 2010 Grand Slam-fest and his win and two runner-up finishes in 2011, there wasRoger Federer. In the midst of his unprecedented mastery, he did it four years in a row, from 2006-09, winning nine of 15 major finals. The last one before him? Some two decades earlier, Ivan Lendl.
"Why is it so difficult?" Lendl mused the other day from his Florida home. "I don't know. You guys think about things I never thought of. I made three finals, but it never crossed my mind it was a big deal when I did it again the next year."
Lendl's degree of difficulty was impressive because in 1986, the Australian Open wasn't held. He made all three major finals that season, winning in Paris and New York, before losing to Boris Becker at Wimbledon. In 1987, the same scenario played out, with Lendl falling to Pat Cash at the All England Club.
The triple-double remains elusive. In 2009, Federer reached all four major finals. In 2010, he won the Australian Open, but then failed to advance to another final. That same year, Nadal won the last three Grand Slam singles titles, then followed it up in 2011 with his lone win at the French Open. He made the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Now Djokovic has the same challenge of being a presence like that in the Grand Slams this year.
"Backing it up, it's so physically and mentally demanding," Lendl said. "It takes so much out of you. Djokovic -- you could just kind of see him tiring down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how he comes out in 2012."
With all due respect to the stars of the past, it's quite possible this is the best men's tennis has ever been, particularly at the very top. Three different men have captured three majors in a single season in the past five years, something we've never seen. And even with Federer, 30, clearly past his prime, he's still a threat.
"Men's tennis," said analyst Mary Carillo, "is going to be fascinating this year. It's sort of the hangover from 2011. I mean, let's see where everyone's bodies are. Like, 'Hey, what did I do? I did what -- on how many different surfaces? Against who?'
"The bar has been set really high for all these guys. For Djokovic to repeat, it would be a remarkable achievement. But a certain point, there's a weariness from all of that winning and all of that pressure. Novak achieved a glistening season. Maybe it's too much to ask him to repeat it."
"You hit .393," Gilbert said, offering a baseball analogy, "and then next year you come back to hit .388. You didn't hit .393, but it's pretty darn good. Some pundits won't agree, but I feel like if you win one major a year, that's great. Two is off the charts."
Pam Shriver, an ESPN tennis analyst, thinks it will be less about Djokovic's state of mind and body than the rest of the field.
"He has such amazing company around him," said Shriver, mentioning Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Murray and del Potro. "He could go without winning one -- or winning three of the four. I maintain that Federer still has two more in him. I'm curious to see how Novak stands up and defends all he has to defend this year."
Pete Sampras reached three major finals in 1995 (winning two), but advanced to only one in 1996, winning at the U.S. Open. Jim Courier reached three Grand Slam finals in 1993 (winning one); his best effort in 1994 was two semifinals. Mats Wilander won three of four majors in 1988, but one year later he could manage only two appearances in the quarterfinals. In his great season of 1984, John McEnroe made three major finals, winning two, but followed that up with a single semifinal at Roland Garros and lost to Lendl in the U.S. Open final.
Lendl, who made some surprising news recently when it was announced that he'll be Murray's full-time coach, sees this Aussie Open as wide open.
"The extent of Djokovic's injuries seemed to be pretty serious," Lendl said. "I'm not sure how much training he was able to do. Certainly, there's an opening for somebody."
Perhaps Federer, the second choice of oddsmakers?
"Roger has done things in the game nobody else has done," Lendl said. "But as every year goes on, it will be more difficult for him. Still, to write Roger off would be foolish."
The experts don't disagree:
"Fed had a great fall," Carillo said. "Nadal is beat up a little. They all have a lot of tennis in them. Fed has played so lightly and easily for so long. Nadal doesn't play that kind of tennis.
"Nobody likes being who they are as much as Federer. He really likes being Roger Federer. He likes practicing, playing. It all makes sense to him. The same way he creates time and space on tennis court -- he does it off the court as well. Better than any champion I've ever known."
Said Gilbert, "Six, seven years ago, Roger was playing Andre Agassi.He remembers seeing what [Agassi] did at the Australian Open at the age of 30 and beyond. Whatever his team does to always have him ready is so admirable.
"Roger's not exactly under the radar, but he could surprise some people."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.