The French Open might be the most unpredictable tournament, but it is constant in one thing: Rafael Nadal. The Australian Open, not so much. Nadal has been hurt here a lot, with injuries playing a factor in his losses in recent years, culminating in him missing the tournament altogether last year. The issues flared again this year, even as he looked strong in the early rounds. He developed a blister on his racket (left) hand that proved exceedingly painful for the 13-time Grand Slam champ. Even as he dismantled Roger Federer, the problem was rearing its head.
However, this was not what did him in the final. Early on against Stanislas Wawrinka. Down a set and a break and serving in the second, Nadal tweaked his back, and the effects were immediate. The good news is that it wasn’t the knee problems that have dogged him for so long. The even better news is that he didn’t have to retire in a Grand Slam final, always a dubious historical footnote. The bad news (and the worse news, for that matter) is that it severely affected his play, with ESPN noting his serve speed dropping below 70 mph at one point, as he was just unable to generate the requisite pop from his back. It’s hard to overstate how essential your back is to everything in your tennis game. Wawrinka showcased a little childishness in his reaction to Nadal leaving, but I think well within the parameters of acceptability for the emotionally charged atmosphere of a Grand Slam final.
Ever the fighter, Nadal gutted out a victory in the third and it looked like he might actually contend for the fourth, as the players traded breaks early on. But Wawrinka regained his composure and that blistering forehand took care of business. Wawrinka’s groundstrokes have the requisite power necessary to grind Nadal down. Not everyone can deal with the amount of spin that Nadal puts on his strokes when he’s feeling it.
But Wawrinka absolutely smashes the ball, with a force resembling that of Juan Martín del Potro or some other big man. Rarely do we see Rafa constantly hounded along the baseline, while his opponents runs him around and dictates the pace of the game. We saw it early this morning. Stan Wawrinka announced himself as the real deal, unexpectedly at 28, but here he is. He will be number three in the world this coming week, and will displace Federer as number one in Switzerland for the first time. Imagine that: Federer not even number one in his own country. Another notable feat: he is the first man to beat Nadal and Djokovic en route to the title (the first- and second-ranked players in the world) in a Grand Slam, per ESPN.com.
It’s sad to see it happen on the heels of an injury, but consider the following: from 2006 until early this morning, five men had won Grand Slam singles titles. Had Roger Federer not choked away the 2009 US Open Final, that list would be just four. The list is Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. If you take it back to 2004, that list expands by a grand total of two names (Gastón Gaudio and Marat Safin). That is a ridiculous display of dominance by just a few names. Hopefully Wawrinka is the real deal, and we don’t start thinking of this title as a fluke and contingent upon Nadal hurting himself or mental issues, as with Federer in 2009.
Savor the moment, Stan. You deserve it.
Keep it here for a women’s wrap-up in the next few days.