Wawrinka outplays Nadal in strange, awkward Australian Open final
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Three quick thoughts after Stanislas Wawrinka upset Rafael Nadal, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 on Sunday to win the Australian Open -- in the strangest, most awkward match you will ever see.
• Let's start by congratulating Wawrinka. Some players meet the moment in their first Grand Slam final. Others do not. But it's rare that a player faces the biggest match of his career and flat-out zones. For an hour Sunday, Wawrinka was clearly the better player. This was rogue tennis. He bullied Nadal from the baseline. He controlled long rallies. He sizzled the ball off both wings. He returned brilliantly. At one juncture, he won 12 straight points.
Serving at 0-2 in the second set, Nadal injured his back. After a six-minute medical timeout, he was scarcely mobile. This became a different match. To his credit, Nadal played on, understanding what was at stake, never mind that the outcome appeared settled. But then Wawrinka lost focus and Nadal took the third set. Wawrinka, though, steadied, returned from his "walkabout," as the Aussies would call it, and closed out the match 6-3 in the fourth set.
Given the awkward and bizarre circumstances, this could feel a little cheapened -- as evidenced by Wawrinka's fairly muted celebration -- but it shouldn't. Wawrinka earned this. A new confidence man, Wawrinka beat Novak Djokovic in a terrific quarterfinal match. He outlasted Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. Sunday, he played almost extravagant tennis for an hour. He became the first man in 20 years to beat the top two seeds at a major. Give the man the trophy. He earned it.
• Nadal was the overwhelming favorite to win this match. He beat Roger Federer with a breathtaking display on Friday night. He was playing in his 19th Grand Slam final, while Wawrinka was playing in his first. Wawrinka hadn't so much as won a set from Nadal in their previous 12 meetings.
And the evening could not have gone worse. He began the match tentative and nervous, uncorking errors and serving abysmally. (Where was that the other night? Federer surely wondered.) Then he tweaked his back and wasn't just in visible pain, but virtually incapacitated for several games. After returning to the court following a medical timeout, he was booed by the crowd (which appeared to rattle him further). He recovered -- and clawed back good will from the fans -- but, even after winning the third set, Nadal was clearly compromised.
He missed last year's Australian Open with an injury. He leaves this year's with another. With a chance to win his 14th Grand Slam -- which would have tied him with Pete Sampras and inched him closer to the record of another Swiss player -- Nadal was stoned. He'll be back for the French Open, which he's all but owned since 2005, but he'll likely look back on this as one that got away.
• The men's final was in keeping with the theme of a strange event, which included the extreme heat and the losses of Serena Williams and then both defending champs (Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka). Nevertheless, how do you not applaud Wawrinka with a full throat? He didn't so much the moment as he kicked its ass. For the first time since 2009, a player outside the Big Four won one of the Big Four titles. This was a career-changer for Wawrinka. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.