Australian Open 2014 Men's Final: Nadal vs. Wawrinka Preview and Prediction

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2014

Australian Open 2014 Men's Final: Nadal vs. Wawrinka Preview and Prediction

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    After two weeks of upsets and intrigue at the 2014 Australian Open, just two men are left standing.

    On Sunday, surprise finalist Stanislas Wawrinka and 2009 Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal will battle it out in Rod Laver Arena for the chance to win the first major of 2014.

    Wawrinka has had the tournament of his life, upsetting his nemesis Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and taking care of business against Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. He's now in his first major final.

    His opponent has been there many times before. Nadal, who was watching the Australian Open from home last year as he rehabbed his knee, is into his third Australian Open final after beating Roger Federer in the semifinals. 

    Can the upstart Swiss steal the stage once again? Here's what you need to know about the final match of the 2014 Australian Open. 

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    Associated Press

    Nadal and Wawrinka first met back at the 2007 Australian Open in the third round. Nadal, then No. 2, steamrolled No. 40 Wawrinka, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.

    Since then, not much has changed in their matchups. Nadal is 12-0 against the 28-year-old Swiss. In fact, Wawrinka has never won a set against Nadal. 

    The two have been meeting more frequently lately. Last year, they played four times, including once in the final of the Madrid Masters on clay. 

    Most recently, they met in the round-robin round of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London last November. Wawrinka played the best match he ever has against Nadal but just couldn't take advantage of his chances. Nadal won, 7-6(5), 7-6(6).

    The only positive that Wawrinka can take from his past against Nadal is that he's been getting closer. Furthermore, he's been playing the best tennis of his career during this Australian Open. 

Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open

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    Playing in his first Australian Open since losing the epic final to Djokovic in 2012, Nadal has not missed a beat in getting back into dominating form on the blue courts of Melbourne.

    His draw seemed to be cruelly tough for a No. 1 headed into the tournament, but he navigated the bumpy spots with ease and enjoyed a few breaks along the way.

    He started off against local hype machine Bernard Tomic, who retired after the first set due to hip troubles. Then he got through another up-and-coming Aussie in Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round before steamrolling the always tricky Gael Monfils in the third round. 

    He struggled a bit against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively, as a blister on his hand continued to bother him and he lost the feel of his forehand. But he survived both of those tests and looked spectacular in his straight-sets takedown of Federer in the semifinals. His serve was lethal, his backhand passing shots were on fire and the forehand was back.

    As the best often do, he seems to be peaking at the right time. 

Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open

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    What a tournament for Stanislas Wawrinka. The No. 8-seeded Swiss got some help during the first week—his first-round opponent Andrey Golubev retired in the second set of their match, and his third-round adversary Vasek Pospisil withdrew before their match even began.

    But once he was faced with quality opponents, Wawrinka stepped up to the plate. He took out an in-form Tommy Robredo in the fourth round to set up a quarterfinal showdown against Djokovic, whom he nearly beat in an Australian Open epic last year.

    This time, Wawrinka finally got his revenge over the four-time Australian Open champion, persevering 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 over the Serb. Failing to succumb to the post-upset blues, Wawrinka took care of No. 7 Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-7(1), 7-6(3), 7-6(4) in the semifinals to make his maiden Grand Slam final at the age of 28.

    Every aspect of his strike-first game has flourished in Melbourne, especially his famous one-handed backhand. No matter what happens in the final, he'll be ranked ahead of his compatriot Federer when the rankings come out on Monday.

The Biggest X-Factors

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    Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    Wawrinka's composure

    While the outcome of the match might have a lot to do with his opponent, how competitive it is will depend on how Wawrinka handles the pressure of being in his first Slam final. If he's overwhelmed by the occasion or stuck thinking about his abysmal track record against Nadal, it could be over quickly.

     

    Nadal's blister

    Per his interview at AusOpen.com, Nadal claims that the most publicized blister ever is healing just fine, and it looked better in the semifinals against Federer. But it's in a terrible place on the palm of his hand, so if it gets worse before the final, it could affect his grip. 

     

    The crowd

    Melbourne crowds are always raucous during their nighttime finals, and they especially love an underdog. Though Nadal has fans wherever he goes, Wawrinka has endeared himself to the Australian crowd during the last two years, and if he gets some early chances, the crowd support could spur him on.

Rafael Nadal Will Win the Final If...

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    Scott Barbour/Getty Images

    Nadal is the heavy favorite in this match, and so the key for him will be to keep the pressure on Wawrinka early and not let up.

    The Spaniard will have to keep serving as well as he did during the semifinals. Because Wawrinka's serve has been fantastic throughout the fortnight, Nadal won't have many chances to break. Wawrinka is also strong off the return, so if Nadal floats in second serves, he could get into trouble.

    He will also have to keep going for broke on his passing shots and move Wawrinka around the court. The Swiss is a very aggressive player and likes to be in control, and so Nadal will have to keep from getting too defensive.

    Mainly, it's important for Nadal not to underestimate his opponent. And, if his press conference at AusOpen.com is any indication, he's not doing that: "(Wawrinka is) serving unbelievable. He's hitting the ball very strong from the baseline. Very, very quick. Is very difficult to play against him today. I know will be a very, very tough match."

Stanislas Wawrinka Will Win the Title If...

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    Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

    Wawrinka will have to play the match of his life if he plans on shocking the world in this final, but the good news is that he's already playing the tennis of his life during this tournament.

    The last Swiss standing will have to go back to the Djokovic match and repeat everything he did during that five-set encounter. He'll need to serve and return exceptionally well so that he can play the points on his own terms.

    He's also going to have to stay calm. Nadal is going to hit mind-boggling shots. He will likely break his serve. He will get a lead at times. Wawrinka can't let what Nadal is doing discourage him. He's going to have to be assertive, try and end rallies quickly and take the ball early to take time away from Nadal.

    Mainly, he's going to have to keep believing in himself. The second he loses faith, the runner-up trophy will be in his hands. 

Prediction

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    No surprises here. While Wawrinka can push Nadal, the Spaniard will be walking away from Melbourne tied with Pete Sampras with 14 major titles.

    The 27-year-old is just too good on the biggest stages to lose this match, and he has so much respect for his opponents that it seems unthinkable that he would take Wawrinka lightly. Even if he wanted to, uncle Toni Nadal wouldn't let him.

    Nadal responded like a champion to Federer's aggressive game plan in the semifinals, playing what Steve Tignor of Tennis.com considered one of Nadal's best matches in the history of their storied rivalry.

    If he plays close to that level on Sunday, there will be nothing that Wawrinka can do. That's just the reality of facing Nadal in his prime. Still, don't expect Wawrinka to be overwhelmed by the occasion.

    Nadal will beat Wawrinka in four tight, entertaining sets.