It wasn't meant to be for Nadal
MELBOURNE, Australia -- He tried not to cry, not to make it about his loss and not to exaggerate the importance of his suffering.
He even begged reporters to stop asking about his injured back because, as Rafael Nadal said following one of the stranger and more painful Grand Slam finals in recent memory, "This is Stan's day, not my day."
But much like the match that preceded it, he was fighting a losing battle.This was indeed about Stanislas Wawrinka winning the Australian Open, his first career Grand Slam title, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 on Sunday night. But it was also about the greatest player in the game, his will to compete and the effect an injury to one player can have on both players.
For a while, it was hard to tell which player Nadal's back hurt more. Having thoroughly outplayed Nadal in the first set with both players seemingly at full strength, Wawrinka suffered right along with the world No. 1 after Nadal aggravated the injury (which he said he first felt during warm-ups) down a break in the third game of the second set.
An eerily quiet, largely immobile Nadal seemed to be just trying to stay on court initially, then to get to the end of the second set, to somehow push it to a fourth and, finally, unbelievably, to win.
But if Nadal was reduced to half-strength or worse physically, so too was Wawrinka mentally.
"I was moving well, feeling really aggressive, and I played my best set for sure by far [in the first]," Wawrinka said. "Then [it] wasn't easy. He got [injured]. I saw that. He wasn't serving at all. He wasn't moving during one set. Then [it] was a completely different match. I had to focus on myself, to try to find the way just to win it.
"I knew it was really, really difficult for him. I was unhappy for that because, normally, that's not the way I want to win the match. But it's a final. At the end, I won in four sets. I think I finished the match. To get the win, it's just amazing for me."
Long toiling in the shadow of Swiss countryman Roger Federer, Wawrinka will move up from No. 8 to No. 3 in the ATP rankings after becoming the first man in 20 years of this tournament to beat the No. 2 seed (Novak Djokovic) and No. 1 en route to the title.
"I still think I'm dreaming," Wawrinka said. "It's such a strange feeling. I always try to watch the final of Grand Slam because that's where the best players are playing. … I never expect to play a final. I never expect to win a Grand Slam. And especially the way I was playing [the whole] tournament, it's for me a big surprise to play that well. To beat Rafa today, even if he was injured, I was ready to play four hours or five to beat Novak in the quarter, to beat [Tomas] Berdych in semis.
"That shows me I'm doing the right thing. That if you practice well, if you work hard, you will always have a chance to be in a great position to play your best tennis."
The two men embraced at the net in a muted celebration for Wawrinka. Nadal teared up as he was lauded for being a role model in the trophy ceremony, succumbing again as he waited for his postmatch news conference to begin.
This tournament, which Nadal won in 2009 against Federer, will not be listed often among his career highlights. Twice (2006 and 2013), he had to miss the Australian Open because of injury, and three times (2010, 2011 and this year) injury has led to defeat, circumstances that once again drew an emotional response.
"Yeah, [this] is a tournament that I really had some troubles physically in my career and is something that is painful for me," Nadal said. "But that's part of life. That's part of sport. [It] is not the end of the world. [It] is just another tough moment. [It] is not the first."
Lost with the match was also Nadal's pursuit of becoming the first man in the Open era, and only third in history, to win each of the four Grand Slam titles twice. He was also bidding to equal Pete Sampras with 14 career Grand Slam titles, which would have made him the youngest to do so.
But Nadal is universally liked because of moments like this, when, in the raw pain of defeat Sunday night, he was still able to articulate and reconcile his feelings in both his native Spanish and English.
"I feel very lucky that I was able to enjoy much more happy moments than tough moments," he said. "At the end is a sport of victories. People remember the victories. They don't remember the losses.
"For me, [it] is a tough one tonight because I felt I was ready to compete well. But in a few weeks that's going to pass. I'm going to keep playing, going to keep training hard, and I'm going to keep enjoying the world of tennis.
"I feel very lucky to be able to work in something that I really love to do. Not everybody's able to do that. Nothing wrong. Just bad day, tough day. But [a] lot of people in the world have a lot of very tough days."
Wawrinka came into the match having never taken a set off Nadal in 12 previous matches between the two. But he came into this final seemingly unaware of that stat, winning all 11 points off his first serve, 10-of-18 second serves and 5-of-6 of Nadal's second serves.
Wawrinka had 12 winners to six by Nadal, breaking to go up 3-1 in the opening set and dictating points with clean shots off both sides. But Nadal's below-average reaction time was easier to understand afterward, when he admitted he was bothered by his back in the first set.
After Nadal finally left the court and took a six-and-a-half-minute timeout following the third game of the second set, Wawrinka seemed unnerved, complaining to the chair umpire and then to the tournament referee that he should be told why Nadal left the court.
Nadal said in a fog of pain and worry that he remembers only that the physiotherapist was trying to relax his back.
"[The] last thing I wanted to do was retirement," he said. "No, I hate to do that, especially in a final. Same time, [it] is tough to see yourself, the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and the moment arrives and you feel you are not able to play at your best.
"So [it] was not an easy situation for me to be on court like this, but I tried hard until the end, trying to finish the match as good as I can for the crowd, for the opponent, for me. So that's what I did -- tried everything until the last moment, but [it] was impossible to win this way. Opponent is too good."With Nadal unable to reach 80 mph on his serve for the first several service games after the timeout, Wawrinka nonetheless struggled with his timing. But with Nadal barely able to move, the Swiss easily closed out the second set.
In the third, Nadal, receiving mini-massages during changeovers, worked his way back thanks in part to Wawrinka's failure to move him around and not attempting so much as a single drop shot. Wawrinka muttered to himself while Nadal was able to end points quickly and efficiently.
"I had to stay calm with myself just to try to stay aggressive because he was injured, but he was still trying," Wawrinka said. "[It] was not easy. I start to be really nervous because I start to realize that I could win a Grand Slam. So it wasn't easy. But at the end, I just came back to the game and focus on what I want to do."
After the two traded service breaks in the sixth and seventh games of the final set, the crowd sensed a five-setter. But Wawrinka had other ideas. He broke again in the eighth game to take a 5-3 lead and closed out the unlikely championship with the same crisp groundstrokes he used to dominate the first set.
"He was playing amazing," Nadal said. "[It] is very tough to stop him when he's playing that way. [You have to] just congratulate him because he's playing better and better and he's playing with amazing confidence, hitting every ball very, very hard, moving great.
"On a court like this one, [with] the bounces a little bit lower and quicker than usual, [it] is very difficult to stop him."
Wawrinka gained perhaps the most attention these past two weeks for the tattoo on his left forearm, a quote by Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
"I had that quote in my head for a long time," Wawrinka said. "It was part of my life, how I see life, and especially how I see the tennis life. Before today, I always said that, except Roger, Rafa, Novak, you always lose -- so it's not easy because tennis life, when you lose, it's tough to get through and to take a positive from a loss, from failing from a tournament.
"That's how I see my career. I always go back to the court. I always go back to practice to try to improve myself and to give me all the chance to beat the best players in the world."