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Rafael Nadal’s absence opens door at Australian Open

MELBOURNE — With another Australian Open about to begin Monday, the addition and subtraction continue at the top of the men’s game.

Though Andy Murray appeared to transform the lead pack into a true Big Four last year by winning the Olympics and the US Open, the pack is back to being a Big Three, with Rafael Nadal’s layoff from competition well into its seventh month.

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“It’s like missing one of the lead singers of a band,’’ said Brad Gilbert, a coach and analyst. ‘‘And it’s not like he’s 32 years old. He’s in the prime of his career, and there’s a great dynamic with the other players, and it just kind of takes it away.

‘‘Obviously, it gives an opportunity for more other guys, but I just miss seeing Nadal compete.’’

Murray, who was often thwarted by Nadal in the late stages of major events, was a beneficiary of Nadal’s absence in London and New York.

Seeded third in the Australian, Murray landed in Roger Federer’s half of the draw, leaving the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, with David Ferrer, the fourth seed, in his half and Tomas Berdych in his quarter. The question is whether the absence of Nadal, 26, makes it easier for an outsider to win, with Djokovic, Federer, and Murray in the mix.

“I still think you’re going to have to beat two of those guys at least to win a major, so the equation is still the same,’’ said Roger Rasheed, the veteran Australian coach now working with a leading outsider, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

“Does Rafa being out help anyone think, ‘Well, now is my chance?’ I guess it depends a bit on the work you’ve done. We’re in a climate now where you just can’t fluke any results.’’

Nor is it easy, with Serena Williams, 31, fresh off her latest bravura performance in Brisbane, to see any outsider staging a meaningful uprising in the women’s draw here.

“I think you can only go by what we saw last season, and I think ‘motivated’ is the key word for Serena,’’ said Chris Evert, an ESPN analyst and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion. ‘‘If Serena’s motivated, she’s going to be fit and going to train harder and going to be focused.

“So the motivation factor is the one factor that has kind of gone up and down with her during her career, because quite frankly, she has such a zest for life that she had other interests, and she hasn’t been as tunnel-visioned as probably champions are.

“But now, I think, she realizes. She realizes she’s older and doesn’t have a lot of time. So I think she’s eyeing the number of Grand Slams and eyeing history, and I think she has in her mind that she has two or three vintage years left in her.’’

The American women appear to be back on the rise, with 10 players in the top 100. Sloane Stephens, 19, is seeded for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament (29th), and Madison Keys, 17, is pushing her elders in earnest after improving her fitness and consistency to complement her powerful serve and forehand.

In the men’s draw, the US has only one player ranked in the top 50, No. 22 Sam Querrey, because John Isner withdrew with a knee injury. Mardy Fish is recovering from health concerns related to an accelerated heartbeat.

But the big absentee remains Nadal, the swashbuckling Spaniard with the fragile knees who lost to Djokovic last year in a marathon final and is not expected to return until next month.

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