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Steve Flink: Wawrinka topples ailing Nadal to claim Australian Open crown

1/26/2014 12:00:00 PM

While some devoted followers of tennis will remember this Australian Open for the astonishing breakthrough of the champion Stan Wawrinka, many others will recollect more enduringly the graciousness of runner-up Rafael Nadal under the most trying of circumstances. Wawrinka, of course, was appearing in his first major final when he collided with Nadal in the final. The 28-year-old Swiss had never won a set in twelve previous appointments with the Spaniard, but then again he had already ended a 14 match losing streak with a five set triumph over three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Wawrinka established himself as the first player ever to overcome both Djokovic and Nadal in the same Grand Slam event; furthermore, he became the first man since Sergi Bruguera mastered Pete Sampras and Jim Courier at the 1993 French Open to defeat the top two seeds in the course of winning a major. Those are gigantic achievements.

In the end, Wawrinka realized his overriding goal when he ousted Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to take the first major of 2014, coming through against very long odds. To be sure, the Swiss thoroughly deserved his triumph, believing in himself when he was surrounded by so many skeptics, rising to a majestic occasion with admirable poise and unmistakable professionalism. He was first rate across the board, a champion in every sense of the word. But Nadal was not even close to his normally lofty standards.

The Spaniard was ridden with anxiety in the opening set. He sensed during the warm-up that something was wrong with his back, and when he was down a break in the second set he called for the trainer and left the court for treatment. He would never really recover, and the rest of the match was largely a disappointment for the fans as Nadal searched in vain for a way to compete despite his compromised movement and restricted power on serve. Wawrinka struggled to adapt his game to beat an ailing and uncertain adversary who simply did not want to retire in the middle of a Grand Slam tournament final.

Let’s examine how it all unfolded. From the outset, Wawrinka carried himself like a man who was surprisingly undaunted by being in a major final for the first time. Nadal, meanwhile, was unusually uptight. This was clearly not the healthy kind of tension that all great players experience on big occasions. He was nervous in a negative way, and a free-hitting Wawrinka exploited his opponent’s insecurity to the hilt during that first set. In the opening game, Wawrinka missed four out of five first serves, but he was the better player from the backcourt. The Swiss out-dueled Nadal in a 14 stroke rally that set the tone for the game, drawing an off balance forehand error from the Spaniard. Wawrinka held at 15, and then Nadal held at love for 1-1, closing that game with a trademark crosscourt forehand winner off a chipped backhand return without much depth from Wawrinka. 

Seemingly, Nadal had settled into the match. But that was not actually the case. Once more, in the third game, Wawrinka missed four out of five first serves, and yet Nadal made no inroads. The Swiss was backing up his second serve remarkably and timing his groundstrokes beautifully. He held again at 15, producing three outright winners, twice stepping into Nadal’s returns and driving forehands into open spaces. Now Nadal faltered flagrantly. Serving at 1-2, he lost the first point on a rare mental mistake, taking a short return from Wawrinka and attempting a poorly disguised drop shot that sat up invitingly for his opponent. Wawrinka raced forward and easily put away a backhand crosscourt. After Nadal got back to 15-15, he double faulted into the net. Coming forward again, his down the line backhand volley had nothing on it, and Wawrinka’s passing shot was too good. With Nadal down double break point at 15-40, Wawrinka laced a forehand crosscourt that provoked Nadal into a backhand slice error.

Wawrinka had made the best possible start, building a 3-1 lead, then serving back to back aces for a 40-15 lead in the fifth game. He held on commandingly at 15 for 4-1 with a terrific serve-and-volley combination, punching his backhand first volley sharply crosscourt into the clear. Nadal was up 30-0 in the following game but Wawrinka collected three points in a row, taking the last two with a dazzling backhand down the line winner and an emphatic backhand volley winner. It was break point for Wawrinka, giving him a chance to be ahead 5-1. Nadal sent a slice serve wide that Wawrinka could not manage on the return and he held on tenuously for 2-4.

Wawrinka charged to 40-0 in the seventh game but lost the next two points. At 40-30, he was firm in his convictions, releasing a precise first serve down the T that Nadal could not return off the backhand. It was 5-2 for the Swiss. Nadal held easily for 3-5, dropping only one point in the eighth game. Until this moment, Wawrinka had been totally uninhibited, but suddenly he realized the magnitude of where he was and how close he had come to sealing the crucial opening set. Serving for the set in the ninth game, he miss-hit a forehand long and then Nadal took a forehand return early and handled Wawrinka’s kick second serve impeccably, flicking the ball into the corner for a winner. Nadal benefitted from an unlucky, hanging net cord shot from Wawrinka at 0-30, making a forehand inside-out winner.

It seemed almost certain that Nadal was making one of his classic clutch moves. He was at triple break point, and Wawrinka was wavering for the first time. But Nadal astoundingly proceeded to miss three consecutive second serve returns, netting a backhand, driving a backhand long, then sending a forehand way over the baseline after moving further back behind the baseline to give himself additional time. Reprieved, Wawrinka took the next two points with an unstoppable first serve out wide and an ace. Nadal had let a glaring opportunity elude him. Wawrinka had collected himself impressively.

After winning that first set, Wawrinka relaxed again and found his range off the ground. Nadal put all four first serves in play as the second set commenced, but he was broken at love. Wawrinka opened that game with a forehand winner after Nadal tried in vain to dictate the rally, and the Swiss sealed the last of those points with a spectacular backhand return winner crosscourt off a wide serve from Nadal. Meanwhile, Nadal got a time violation warning from the umpire at 0-40, adding to his state of discomfort. Wawrinka held for 2-0, serving-and-volleying at 40-30, going down the T to set up a forehand volley winner from close range.

Clearly, Nadal was in a precarious position, down a set and 0-2, finding no way to impose himself against a disciplined and assertive adversary. In the middle of the third game, however, his plight became darker. He signaled to the umpire Carlos Ramos that he needed the trainer. He somehow held despite losing a lot of velocity on his serve, and then left the court with the trainer to have his back treated in the locker room.

Inexplicably, Wawrinka complained to Ramos about not knowing the reason why Nadal was allowed to leave the court or what the reason was for it. He was implying that he felt Nadal might be guilty of some kind of gamesmanship. Wawrinka would later have some kind remarks about his “good friend” Nadal in the presentation ceremony, and he consoled his rival genuinely at the net when the players shook hands after the match. But he carried on offensively with the umpire while Nadal was away from the court. Did Wawrinka honestly believe Nadal was pulling a stunt as a way to distract him? In my view, that was way out of line. Wawrinka realized that Ramos was strictly adhering to the rules, and knows full well that Nadal is a sportsman through and through.

When Nadal walked back on court about seven minutes later, the fans booed him, which was bizarre and fundamentally unfair to a player who has always given them everything he has in his competitive arsenal, and then some. I found that very disconcerting and unjustified. When play resumed, it seemed entirely possible that Nadal might have to quit. Nadal could hardly move, he could not serve with anything like his normal velocity, and the life seemed to evaporate from the match. Wawrinka served two aces in a love game to reach 3-1. In the fifth game, Nadal was pushing his serve in, and he double faulted for 15-30 into the net. Wawrinka broke at 15 for 4-1. The trainer returned to the court to rub Nadal’s back, but it did not seem to make much difference. In a deuce game, Wawrinka served three aces to reach 5-1. Although Nadal somehow held from 15-40 in the seventh game, he was not getting much better. Wawrinka served two more aces down the T to hold on, winning the set 6-2.

The trainer came back to the court to rub some cream on Nadal’s back before the start of the third set. Gradually, his serve regained some, but not enough, speed. Despite having limited range moving, Nadal began taking some calculated risks off the ground, going for inside-out forehand winners, taking his forehand down the line opportunistically, opening up the court with more penetrating shots. Nadal knew he had no alternative but to go for his shots slightly more adventurously than usual. Down 15-40 in the first game of the third set, he escaped and held on for 1-0. Wawrinka understood that Nadal would not be able to move like his normal self, but the Swiss did not alter his gameplan. He should have gone for some sharply angled shots, and a drop shot or two here and there would have been wise. Nadal would have been hard pressed to dig out balls on the run.

The Swiss was playing with a cluttered mind, focusing too much on Nadal’s condition rather than his own tactics. In the second game of the third set, a deep forehand crosscourt from a bold Nadal at 15-30 opened up an avenue for a forehand down the line winner. Wawrinka served an ace to save one break point but then Nadal took a backhand return early off a first serve and coaxed an error from his opponent. The Spaniard had a foothold in the set, taking a 2-0 lead. He held on for 3-0. Wawrinka was not adjusting well to Nadal’s slower serving, losing timing and purpose on his returns. Nadal methodically plodded on, and with Wawrinka failing to make him cover that much court, the Spaniard protected his lead ably. At 5-3, he served for the set, but trailed 15-40. Wawrinka netted a backhand return somewhat carelessly, then missed a forehand return. Nadal advanced to set point, but Wawrinka saved it with a forehand crosscourt winner off a forehand down the line from the Spaniard that had too much cover on it. Nadal closed out the set from there, essentially bluffing his way past an opponent with clouded judgment.

Yet Wawrinka did not lose his composure and his serve remained a trusted friend. He held at love for a 1-0 fourth set lead and then Nadal held from 15-40. On game point, he served down the T in the ad court. The return was weak, and Nadal stepped in to unleash a forehand crosscourt winner with interest.

He was back to 1-1, but how long could his resurgence last? He was not the Nadal we all admire so much for his foot speed, unbridled intensity, incomparable willpower and supreme match playing flexibility. He was very limited in how he could play, and the only reason the Spaniard was still in the match was Wawrinka’s inability to alter his strategy and rely not merely on power but on exploring angles. But what the Swiss had going for him was the capacity to largely avoid danger on his own serve. Aside from the one break at the start of the third set, Nadal was not getting any openings on the Wawrinka delivery.

With Nadal serving at 2-3, 15-40, in the fourth set, he did not get enough pace on his forehand, and Wawrinka took advantage, walloping a forehand down the line for a clean winner. Wawrinka had 4-2, and the way he had been serving combined with Nadal’s reduced options, it seemed certain to soon be over. But Wawrinka missed three out of four first serves in the seventh game and Nadal broke at love with some fine strategic play. He was improbably back on serve at 3-4, and Nadal’s boosters were given one more glimmer of hope, one last reason to believe a big rally was possible. It did not last. Wawrinka surged to 15-40 in the following game, and then took a backhand crosscourt from Nadal and drove it cleanly down the line for a timely winner. That play demonstrated Wawrinka’s confidence and determination.

Wawrinka was serving for the match at 5-3 in the fourth set. He was first rate in closing the deal. He swung a slice serve wide in the deuce court to elicit a return error from Nadal: 15-0. He courageously followed a second serve in, and Nadal netted a backhand return: 30-0. He released a second serve wide to the backhand that gave the Spaniard no chance: 40-0. Finally, he concluded the contest in style with a forehand winner off a short return from Nadal. Match to Wawrinka, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

When it was over, Wawrinka and Nadal had a brief but heartfelt conversation up at the net as they shook hands, and Wawrinka later came over to Nadal’s chair to console him. Both men had high praise for each other in the presentation ceremony, and spoke genuinely of the nice friendship they have shared. That made Wawrinka’s outburst to umpire Ramos all the more baffling to me. Perhaps he was edgy because he wanted to get on with the match at that stage, and it made him behave badly. But the fact remains he was very gracious afterwards.

Nadal was given a rousing ovation from the crowd after his speech, revealing his immense class and character in his dignified remarks. He did not question the crowd for rudely booing him, and they were plainly appreciative that he had finished the match and competed with full integrity. For the Spaniard, the untimely injury and a top of the line Wawrinka cost him a major opportunity. He could have become the first man in the Open Era to win all four major singles championships at least twice, and he would have tied Pete Sampras for second place on the all-time men’s list of Grand Slam singles title holders with 14. A victory in Melbourne would also have meant that Nadal had added to his men’s record by securing at least one major for ten consecutive years.

The 27-year-old has had more than his share of misfortune at the Australian Open. He was injured when he retired at two sets down and 0-3 in the third against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals of the 2010 event, and was hurt again when he was beaten by David Ferrer in a 2011 quarterfinal—a loss that prevented Nadal from winning a fourth Grand Slam event in a row. Two years ago, Nadal was serving at 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth set of his epic final round confrontation with Novak Djokovic but he lost that match. Last year, he missed the tournament altogether. Now he bows out against an inspired Wawrinka on a day when his body let him down sorely.

Be that as it may, Wawrinka must be saluted for his mighty accomplishment. He had already knocked out Djokovic in the match of the tournament, and he was primed for his appointment for Nadal. Here is a man who had won a grand total of five ATP World Tour events across his career, but the 28-year-old came through the first time he appeared in a Grand Slam tournament final. He is now projected to become the No. 3 ranked player in the world. Over the previous 35 Grand Slam championships leading up to Melbourne, 34 had been captured by Federer (13), Nadal (13), Djokovic (6) and Andy Murray (2). The only other player to win a major in that span was Juan Martin Del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open. Interestingly, the Australian Open was Wawrinka’s 36th career Grand Slam event. Now at last he is on the big board.

As admirable as he is, Wawrinka will be hard pressed to replicate his Australian Open feat at another major in the future. But he will often find himself among the contenders, and that is no small thing.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.