The 2014 Australian Open continued its knack for the unexpected when pre-match underdog, Stan Wawrinka, beat a hobbled Rafael Nadal to win his first Grand Slam title 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3. The Stanimal lived up to his nickname after toppling both Nadal and Djokovic at the same tournament - a herculean feat.
Stan burst through the gates to overwhelm Nadal with a blistering first set. Ripping winners at will, Wawrinka displayed no signs of a nervy first time finalist. Instead, he took the entirety of his game to Nadal. It was an awesome display of "big babe tennis" - nothing Rafa mustered seemed to affect Stan in the slightest. Then, up a set and a break in the second, we saw the first sign of injury from Nadal.
If the sight of Nadal getting blitzed on Rod Laver Arena weren’t jarring enough, then what followed would unsettle even the sturdiest of constitutions. Nadal immediately left the court to take a medical time-out, at which point Wawrinka lambasted the chair umpire for not disclosing to him the nature of Rafa’s injury. The back and forth went on for minutes with Stan getting increasingly heated. Upon returning to the court, a shirtless Nadal was greeted by a chorus of boos.
Wawrinka has since said that he was surprised by the crowd’s reaction and that he was in no way attacking Nadal’s integrity:
He’s always a really fair player. He always tries his best. He is always fighting. The problem for me, it was not that he was taking a physio, that he left the court. I just wanted to know why, what was this problem, just to know for the rest of the match. But, yeah, was quite strange that the crowd start to boo him.
You can watch the whole incident here.
Perhaps the crowd was still hungover from Azarenka’s display last year against Sloane Stephens, but it’s doubtful that things would have escalated to the point they did without the crowd feeding off of Wawrinka’s anger toward the umpire. Even if Stan didn’t intend to call Rafa’s injury into question, the crowd inferred something from the exchange, something damning and untoward.
More than anything, this incident brought forth the seedy underbelly of tennis partisans; they spew all manner of vitriol against players they don’t like. The reactions, particularly on Twitter, showed that a large number of people think Nadal is a cheat and this was yet another example. I won’t waste space giving specific examples - if so inclined, a simple Google search will fill in those gaps.
Nadal continued, clearly inhibited by his back. When Wawrinka won the second set, all eyes watched to see if Nadal would retire. He didn’t. He found a few more clicks on his serve and, aided by some tentative play from Wawrinka, stole the third set. This final became a contest between Stan’s mental struggles and Nadal’s physical pains.
Make no mistake, Stan Wawrinka won this match. He didn’t get lucky. He had Nadal on the ropes, much like he did with Djokovic and every other opponent over two weeks in Melbourne. There is no asterisk beside his name; he deserved the trophy. Outside of Juan Martin del Potro, Wawrinka is the first player outside the “Big 4” to win a Slam since Marat Safin in Australia 9 years ago. All the extraneous and bizarre facets of the match should not undermine the enormity of the achievement.
Despite the loss, Nadal extends his lead over Djokovic in the ATP rankings, now in excess of 3500 points. Along with becoming the only man in the Open Era to win the career Grand Slam twice, a Rafa win could have also made him the first to cross the 15,000 point threshold. He entered the final three sets from a 14th Slam, and left with questions about his body and a new challenger for 2014.
Wawrinka catapults to world #3 and, with that achievement, finally steps out of the long shadow cast by Roger Federer. Nadal and Djokovic have been warned; they’ve got company at the top. With the Stanimal’s coronation in Melbourne, the ATP now boasts an embarrassment of riches. One could make the case for each of the top 8 ranked players winning a major in 2014 (except Ferrer?). The Stanimal has altered the tennis landscape once more, and entered the uppermost echelon of men’s tennis, a height even he doubted he’d ever reach. The onus is now on him to make it count for the rest of the year.