Once again, we were reminded why they play the game.
This was Stanislas Wawrinka's first major final and Rafael Nadal's attempt at winning his 14th Slam. In their previous 12 matches, Wawrinka had never even taken a set off Nadal.
And yet, in a match that seemed scripted by Days of our Lives writers-turned-tennis gods, No. 8 Wawrinka upset an injured No. 1 Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to win the 2014 Australian Open.
It was a confusing match at the best of times and a gut-wrenchingly awful one to watch at others. Wawrinka, whom many thought would be overwhelmed by the occasion, started off the first set on fire. He was taking the ball early, dictating with his backhand and simply forcing the match out of Nadal's hands.
Then, serving for his first set against Nadal in 27 tries, the Swiss underdog went down 0-40. At the time, it seemed like a repeat of a worn-out story—pesky underdog comes out, plays inspired tennis, but then fades when he remembers where he is and, more importantly, who he is.
But in the first true sign that something more than an in-form Wawrinka was bothering Nadal, the Spaniard missed three straight second-serve returns on break points, and Wawrinka won five straight points to close out the set.
I'm still trying to understand how Rafael Nadal gets 3 BPs, 3 second serves, and doesn't put a single ball in play. #ausopen— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) January 26, 2014
Still, it seemed likely that Nadal would find another gear in the second set. Instead, the upset in the making turned downright upsetting.
Early in the second set, already down a break, Nadal began grimacing and holding his back after what looked like a routine forehand. He lost that game and went off court for a medical timeout for his back as Wawrinka, enraged that the umpire wouldn't tell him what Nadal was getting treatment for, ranted and raved for the entire six minutes that Nadal was gone. When Nadal came back to continue play, a head-scratching chorus of boos rang down on him from the Melbourne crowd.
For the next two sets, the match was a train wreck. Wawrinka took the second set, and it looked as if the clearly compromised Nadal was going to retire. Then Nadal stole the third set, and it seemed like Wawrinka was going to choke away this golden opportunity. It was ugly, nervy, nearly unwatchable tennis.
The proceedings just didn't make any sense. On one hand, it seemed impossible that the mere mortal Wawrinka would be able to close out a match this big against a player as esteemed as Nadal. At the same time, it was unthinkable that Nadal and his bad back would be able to climb out of this hole. With both competitors frustrated with their minds, bodies and games, the crowd in Rod Laver Arena was confused into submission.
But then it happened. After losing one break in the fourth set, Wawrinka finally had a chance to serve for the match. He easily converted match point, and suddenly the otherworldly happenings turned tangible. It was bizarre but true: The often overlooked and unheralded 28-year-old had just become a Grand Slam champion.
Acting like he had been there before, Wawrinka kept his celebration subdued out of respect to Nadal, even comforting the Spaniard as they waited for the trophy presentation. A clearly emotional Nadal, a class act himself, confessed that he had begun to feel his back tighten up during the warm-up, but he refused to get into details, via AusOpen.com:
That's not the real moment to talk about that. Is the moment to congratulate Stan. He's playing unbelievable. He really deserve to win that title. I very happy for him. He's a great, great guy. He's a good friend of mine. I am really happy for him.
Nadal is right. While his injury and the awkward match are a part of the story, the hero in this tale is Wawrinka, who capped off a career renaissance that nobody thought he had in him. With coach Magnus Norman in his camp and an inspirational "fail harder" tattoo on his forearm, the one-handed backhand wonder had transitioned from Swiss sidekick to Slam-winning star.
Two weeks ago, the thought of Wawrinka walking away as champion was far-fetched, even for Wawrinka himself. When asked in his opening press conference 12 days ago whether he thought he was close to winning a Slam, Wawrinka had serious doubts, per AusOpen.com:
But I'm not thinking I'm not winning a Grand Slam. I'm too far away. I'm trying to improve my game. I'm trying to control what I can. That's mean the practice. That's mean my schedule, always to try to improve, to be a better player. The rest we'll see.
But he did do it. It happened. Sure, he got a few breaks along the way, but every champion has gotten an assist from somewhere.
Wawrinka was fresher in the second week because his first-round match ended early with a retirement, and he got a walkover in the third round. However, he paved his way with a shocking quarterfinal upset over three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic. He kept his nerve to take out No. 7 Tomas Berdych in the semifinal and a hobbled but always dangerous Nadal in the final.
In just two weeks, he accomplished what he couldn't even let himself aspire to.
Now, in a shift that is as significant symbolically as it is mathematically, Wawrinka will be ranked No. 3 when the new rankings come out on Monday, making him the No. 1 Swiss player for the first time in his career. His friend Roger Federer's shadow has been hanging over him his entire career, but after this the skies are clear.
As Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim wrote, "This was a career-changer for Wawrinka."
"Right now, I still don't know if I'm dreaming," Wawrinka said during his on-court speech as he held the trophy and soaked in the camera flashes and applause in Rod Laver Arena. "We'll see tomorrow morning."
Tomorrow morning when he wakes up, it will still be true. Wawrinka has won a major. That's his new reality, and, as it turns out, it's far better than anything he could have dreamed of.