Well, that was different. If ever there were a Grand Slam final whose outcome appeared pre-determined, it was the one played on Sunday night in Melbourne. Rafael Nadal is in the midst of playing some of the best tennis of his storied career, having defeated a resurgent Roger Federer in the semifinals. Stanislas Wawrinka had never, in 12 tries, defeated Nadal—never even taken a set off him. And yet all the numbers, all the history didn’t matter one bit on this particular night, as the Swiss bested the Spaniard 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to conclude a remarkable tournament and win his first Grand Slam championship at the Australian Open.
Though historic, it was an unquestionably strange tennis match. Wawrinka came out with blistering serves and groundstrokes, scoring an early break off of Nadal that propelled Wawrinka to a first-set victory. Then, early in the second set, disaster struck for Nadal as the world No. 1 appeared to suffer a back injury that forced him to take a medical timeout and leave the court. After all the talk of the gruesome blister on his serving hand, it was a new ailment that proved far more damning for Nadal.
In the post-match press conference, Nadal revealed that he had started to feel the pain in his back during the pre-match warmups, though was reluctant to go into too many specifics. In spite of open speculation that he might retire from the match, Nadal played through. “The last thing I wanted to do was retirement, especially in a final,” he said. “It was not an easy situation for me to be on-court like this. I tried hard to finish the match as best I could.”
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With the injury clearly hampering Nadal’s play, Wawrinka claimed the second set 6-2. The third set, however, proved to be a different story. Whatever treatment Nadal received off the court during the timeout and on the court during the changeovers appeared to alleviate some of the pain. With Wawrinka’s groundstrokes betraying him, Nadal scored a break and claimed the third set. Nadal seemed primed to continue clawing his way back, but Wawrinka and the injury proved too much to overcome. Unable to serve up to his usual standards and severely limited in his lateral movement, Nadal dropped the fourth set 6-3, and Wawrinka claimed the title in a brisk two hours and 21 minutes.
Though numbers can hardly begin to tell the story of the match, they do paint a pretty picture for Wawrinka. He out-aced Nadal 19-1 and decimated the Spaniard with 53 winners to Nadal’s 19. For as much talk as there will undoubtedly be about Nadal and his back, the night—and the tournament as a whole—belonged to Wawrinka. “Right now I don’t know if I’m dreaming or not, but we’ll see when I wake up tomorrow morning,” he said after the match. The 28-year-old became the first player to ever beat Djokovic and Nadal in a Grand Slam tournament, and will jump to No. 3 in the world when the new rankings are released on Monday, whether he believes it or not.
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Most striking throughout the entire tournament has been Wawrinka’s unshakable confidence. Even Federer appeared uncertain that he was up to the task of defeating Nadal during their semifinal match. Wawrinka, despite previous futility against Nadal, never seemed at a loss for self-assuredness. That confidence allowed him to do what his countryman Federer has yet to: defeat Nadal at a non-Wimbledon Grand Slam venue.
As good as Wawrinka’s defeat of Djkokovic earlier in the week was for men’s tennis, this victory is even better. Nadal will have other chances to chase history, but it looks as though he can expect at least one more major obstacle standing in his way for the foreseeable future—a future that, thanks to Stan the Man, isn’t nearly as clear as it once was.