Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Sports - KIN CHE­UNG AP BY JOHN PYE

Rafael Nadal knew it was in­evitable that sooner or later the Big Four would be­come the Big Three.

That Andy Mur­ray is the first of the long-time lead­ing four in men’s ten­nis to sig­nal the end of his ca­reer is some­thing Nadal has to keep in per­spec­tive.

The No. 2-ranked Nadal en­ters the Aus­tralian

Open as a le­git­i­mate ti­tle con­tender along with No. 1-ranked No­vak Djokovic and No. 3-ranked Roger Fed­erer, both six-time cham­pi­ons at Mel­bourne Park. Nadal is 32. Djokovic turns 32 in May, a week or so after Mur­ray. Fed­erer is 37.

Five-time fi­nal­ist Mur­ray plans to start the tour­na­ment in Aus­tralia, but he has con­ceded it could be his last after 20 months of strug­gling to over­come a long-time in­jury. The se­vere pain from his sur­gi­cally re­paired right hip is re­strict­ing his move­ment and he has al­ready flagged he'll re­tire after Wim­ble­don – if he can keep play­ing that long.

Mur­ray prac­ticed Satur­day at Mel­bourne Park not long be­fore Nadal ap­peared at a news con­fer­ence to talk about his health after three months out of com­pet­i­tive ten­nis and his prospects at the Aus­tralian Open, the only one of the four Grand

Slam tour­na­ments that he hasn’t won at least twice.

“Yeah, of course is very bad news,” Nadal said of Mur­ray’s tear­ful news con­fer­ence the pre­vi­ous day.

“Will be a very im­por­tant loss for us, for the world of ten­nis, for the tour, for the fans, even for the ri­vals that he have been part of a great ri­valry be­tween the best play­ers for a long time, and a great com­peti­tor.

“But be­ing hon­est, when some­body like him, that he achieved al­most ev­ery­thing in his ten­nis ca­reer, is suf­fer­ing like he’s do­ing for such a long time al­ready … prob­a­bly he does the right thing for his men­tal health.”

Nadal has missed long pe­ri­ods of ten­nis be­cause of in­juries through­out his ca­reer, still manag­ing to amass 17 ma­jor ti­tles, but has never con­tem­plated a date for re­tire­ment.

“I didn’t ar­rive to that point. I am a pos­i­tive guy. I al­ways had the feel­ing that we'll fix it,” he said. “But, of course, there is pe­ri­ods of time that you don’t see the light. Is tough.”

Fed­erer has cred­ited im­prove­ments in travel, in nu­tri­tion and in life bal­ance for giv­ing mod­ern ten­nis play­ers the abil­ity to ex­tend their ca­reers well into their 30s.

He was 35 and com­ing off a long in­jury lay­off when he re­vived his ca­reer with an Aus­tralian Open ti­tle in 2017.

He suc­cess­fully de­fended the ti­tle last year, his 20th ma­jor.

Nadal’s plan for longevity re­volves around play­ing fewer tour­na­ments and rest­ing when­ever he has per­sis­tent in­juries.

Andy Mur­ray hits a fore­hand dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion ahead of the Aus­tralian Open on Satur­day in Mel­bourne. Mur­ray said Fri­day that this year could be his swan song.

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