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Rafael Nadal now has major chance to end Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer GOAT debate

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RAFAEL NADAL won his Australian Open first round match in straight sets.

Rafael Nadal is in a prime position to pull clear of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the age-old Greatest Of All Time debate. All of tennis’ famed ‘big three’ are tied on an incredible 20 Grand Slam titles apiece, with all in, or entering, the twilight of their careers.

It was an ideal start to Rafael Nadal’s Australian Open campaign when he sailed through his first round match in straight sets on Monday.

America’s Marcos Giron was seen off 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, with Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann waiting in the second round.

The outlook is not so rosy for Djokovic, however, who has left Australia after a lengthy visa battle due to not being vaccinated against Covid.

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A judge initially cleared the Serb to compete at this month’s tournament, before Immigration Minister Alex Hawke overruled the decision and deported the 34-year-old, a decision that was upheld in court.

Djokovic is also set to be slapped with a three-year visa ban, which will theoretically stop him competing at the Australian Open for the foreseeable future.

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The nine-time Australian Open winner caused a huge stir when he gained a medical exemption to compete at the tournament, despite being unvaccinated.

And there could be more trouble down the line, with Djokovic’s status as the ‘anti-vax posterboy’ threatening to backfire in future tournaments.

That will come as good news for Nadal, who has a clearer run to the title in Melbourne this month and may well have an improved shot Down Under for the next three years if he intends to continue competing for that long.

The 35-year-old has only won the Australian Open once before, way back in 2009, but a triumph this year – one that is not impossible given he has reached the final on four occasions since his last victory – could stir up serious momentum ahead of the French Open in spring.

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Nadal is virtually invincible at Roland Garros, having only tasted defeat three times in 108 French Open matches.

Djokovic’s absence from Melbourne, and his potential absence from Grand Slams to come gives Nadal the perfect chance to pull clear in the race to rack up as many titles as possible before retirement.

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Due to an age advantage and momentum, many had tipped Djokovic to hang up his racket having banked the most titles.

But the advantage could lie with Nadal, who does not have to worry about Djokovic pulling clear for now, and faces less competition in his own attempts to add to his tally.

Of course, Federer is level on 20 titles, but with his 41st birthday a matter of months away, it remains to be seen whether the legendary Swiss has more titles in the tank.

The veteran is sitting out this month’s Grand Slam amid his ongoing recovery from knee surgery.

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With fine margins separating the formidable trio, as has been the case over the past few years, now could be the ideal time for Nadal to find his best form and stake his claim to the coveted GOAT label – a title contested nowhere more competitively than in tennis.