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Australian Open: Wawrinka d. Nadal

I’m not sure what Stanislas Wawrinka expected as he faced the prospect of becoming just the second man outside of the game’s Big Four to win a major title over the past 36 opportunities. Whatever it was could not have been what happened on the floor of Rod Laver Arena tonight, as Wawrinka won the most bizarre Grand Slam final in recent memory, overcoming an injured but unyielding Rafael Nadal over four sometimes brilliant, sometimes ghastly sets lasting two hours and 24 minutes. 

The final score was 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. And the question lingering after Wawrinka cracked the final ball, a forehand approach winner, was: “Just how badly is Nadal hurt?”

Wawrinka’s prospects looked grim going into the match, even though he had knocked knocked out No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. For one thing, he was winless against the tournament’s top seed in 12 tries. Moreover, he had never won a set in any of those matches. To top it off—no, wait, not yet—he had been unable to convert on nine set-point opportunities in those 12 matches. And finally, nobody had ever beaten Djokovic and Nadal in the same tournament.

In other words, Nadal was not only in Wawrinka’s head, he’d built a McMansion there and moved all of his junk in.

Yet from the start, there were signs that Wawrinka had somehow managed to evict Nadal from between his ears – at least temporarily. Few first-time Grand Slam finalists have come out looking as calm, confident, and determined as Wawrinka. In what some would find a refreshing—and astonishing—plot twist, it was Nadal who seemed to fall prey to bouts of anxiety in the early going.

Thus, Wawrinka was able to draw first blood with a break for 3-1—the kill shot an unreturnable cross-court forehand. While Wawrinka has always been known for his heavy, punishing backhand, it was his forehand that had carried him to the ultimate round at this tournament.

With that lead in hand, Wawrinka continued to play assured, handsome tennis. He had another break point in the sixth game, and although Nadal survived it to go to 2-4, it was clear that Wawrinka had him on the run. In the next game, Wawrinka held for the 33rd consecutive time in the tournament. 

Yet that elusive first-set win seemed improbable just a game later, as Wawrinka served at 5-3. He got off on the wrong foot with a forehand shank right out of the Roger Federer playbook, then watched helplessly as Nadal attacked and pinned him down, 0-40. But three uncharacteristic service-return errors followed by a unreturned serve and an ace saved the game—and earned Wawrinka that long-sought first set.

My notes alongside that game count say, “bizarre.” But it turns out that in the big picture the assessment was premature. 

Wawrinka kept the pedal to the metal to start the second set. Looking unhappy and grousing over having been slapped with a time violation warning, Nadal lost a quick four-point game to start the second set. But he could at least console himself with the fact that three of those points were stone-cold winners by his opponent.

In the next game, Wawrinka grew a little tentative after building a 40-0 lead. He played two poor points but saved further stress as he served and bunted away Nadal’s returns with an awkward forehand volley. He led, 2-0.

In the next game, and with no forewarning, Nadal netted a routine forehand at 30-0 and immediately called for the trainer. He grabbed at his back. He bent at the waist, trying to stretch his lower back muscles. There was no interruption, and he went on to win the game for 1-2.

On the changeover, Nadal consulted briefly with the trainer, then disappeared into an on-site training room to get some work done on his back and, presumably, take some painkillers. The break lasted seven minutes and 15 seconds, and when Nadal returned—to a chorus of boos and jeers from the crowd—he didn’t return a single serve of Wawrinka’s in the next game. 

Nadal was obviously hobbled, so much so that over the span of the next few games the question wasn’t so much “What’s wrong with Rafa?” as “When is he going to walk up and tell Wawrinka he can’t go on?”

Wawrinka broke in the next game with ease, and then held for 5-1. Nadal was barely able to move, but his handicap was so enormous that it left Wawrinka struggling to concentrate and come up with a viable game plan. He won the set and broke Nadal to start the third, yet things went swiftly downhill for Wawrinka from there.

It’s never easy to play a guy who can barely move, and Wawrinka didn’t respond to the challenge well. He had trouble handling Nadal’s off-speed, slice serves and his own game declined precipitously. Nadal broke him for 2-0, and when Nadal held the next game it was clear that Wawrinka was mentally shot. 

Nadal went on to win the set, but what was most troubling for Wawrinka was the fact that Nadal was gradually becoming more mobile, more able to tap into his power. He was unable to serve effectively, his movement was still obviously impaired. But Nadal’s groundstrokes were beginning to find their mark, and Wawrinka seemed utterly at a loss for how to play. Consider: Even when Nadal was barely able to move, Wawrinka didn’t attempt a single drop shot.

Wawrinka managed to settle his nerves to break Nadal in the sixth game of the fourth set but then played an absolutely dreadful, error-shot game to allow Rafa to break back. That turned out to be rock bottom for Wawrinka, but he began to swim back up toward the light in the next game, breaking Nadal at 15 with a passing shot followed by an inside-out forehand winner. Reprieved, Wawrinka served for the trophy. 

By then, a subdued and dispirited Nadal knew that he could no longer forestall the obvious. Almost miraculously, he had managed to make some kind of match of the final, and that may help explain why Wawrinka did absolutely no dramatic celebrating when he won the match. He just jogged to the net, shook Nadal’s hand, and expressed his concern and condolences.

Wawrinka had taken the big step, he had become Stan the Grand Slam Man. And he did it with great class and some of the best tennis we’ve seen over a two-week span in a long time.

Stat of the Match: While he produced a boatload (49) of unforced errors, Wawrinka also managed to win 87 percent of his first-serve points.