MELBOURNE - Rafael Nadal will look to give Stanislas Wawrinka a rough welcome to his first Grand Slam final as he bids to tie Pete Sampras with 14 major titles at the Australian Open on Sunday. American great Sampras will present the winner's trophy, with the Spanish marvel an overwhelming favourite to vanquish the popular and constantly improving Swiss for the year's opening Slam title.
World number one Nadal has yet to drop a set in 12 encounters with Wawrinka, who knocked over three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic and world number seven Tomas Berdych to reach the final. Nadal again mastered his long-time rival Roger Federer in the semi-finals -- a result which installed Wawrinka as Swiss number one -- to reach his third Australian final as he seeks to add his 2009 triumph. Victory would also make Nadal only the third man, after Australians Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, to have won each of the four Grand Slam titles twice. It is hard to see past Nadal winning, even though Wawrinka is playing the best tennis of his life, good enough to take him past close friend Federer in the new world rankings out next week.
Nadal, at 27 years, would become the youngest man in history to win 14 Grand Slams, eclipsing Federer's corresponding feat at Roland Garros in 2009 by 66 days. Sampras, who was 31 when he reached his 14 Slams, admires Nadal's extraordinary athleticism and strength to stand out in an era dominated by the 'Big Four' -- Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray.
"He's a great athlete. Rafa's game is not suited to grass, but he's done well there. He's an incredible mover. He's a great player," Sampras said in Melbourne this week. Nadal won't sell Wawrinka short in Sunday's final, saying that past matches mean little in the context of a high-pressure major final. "For me, if you play in a Grand Slam final that's a different kind of match than I played against him in the past," he said.
"He's playing better than ever. He's a player that is ready to win against everybody. If I don't play my best tennis, I am sure that he will win three sets against me." But Nadal added ominously: "I am moving quick. I am able to come back from difficult situations with great shots and am able to keep producing power on the shot from very difficult positions."
While Wawrinka faces a tough task to grab his first ever win over Nadal in a Grand Slam final, the Swiss is confident of his ability under Swedish coach Magnus Norman. Also in Wawrinka's favour is that Norman was the coach of Robin Soderling when the Swede upset Nadal at the 2009 French Open, the eight-time winner's last defeat at his favourite Grand Slam. "The record is not what I'm looking at. That's what it is against Rafa. I don't care about having lost 14 times," he said.
"But it's more about playing Rafa. He's the number one, the best player. His game is quite tough for me, especially with the one-hand backhand. But I had some good matches against him last year, close ones. I will have a few things that I will try tomorrow. I'm playing my best tennis here, I'm physically ready."
I'm going to try everything. Before I beat Djokovic it was the same. I had lost 14 times to him before that. I'm always trying and I always think that I can change all the statistics, that's a positive." It's been a long time coming for Wawrinka to play in his first major final in his 36th Grand Slam. For Nadal, it will be his 19th Slam final, with a win-loss record of 13-5.