Australian Open 2014 Men's Final: Defeat Isn't Worrying Sign for Rafael Nadal

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2014

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts as he speaks during the trophy presentation,  after his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland in the men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014.(AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)
Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

The sky isn't falling for Rafael Nadal after his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open.

Coming into the final, Nadal was a perfect 12-0 against Wawrinka, failing to drop a single set. Now, both those winning streaks are out the window following Wawrinka's four-set win, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Some may argue that Nadal's myriad of injury problems cast a shadow over what was an otherwise dominant performance. But that shouldn't be the case, with even Rafa giving Wawrinka plenty of props after the match, per the Australian Open:

Plain and simply, Wawrinka was far and away the better player. His backhand was brilliant, and he never let Rafa get into the match. He kept pushing forward, piling more pressure on his opponent.

All of that doesn't mean this match is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for Nadal, though.

In general, the Australian Open is always unkind to the world's best players. It happens so early in the year that most aren't anywhere near their best. They come in with one, maybe two tournaments under their belt and then have the first Grand Slam of the year.

That lack of match practice helps to level the playing field to a certain extent.

When judging Rafa's overall performance at the Australian Open, let's remember what he was doing around this time last year. He had withdrawn from the Aussie Open with a stomach virus. There was also the little matter of the knee tendinitis that had forced his withdrawal from the 2012 U.S. Open.

Some, including myself, wondered if he'd ever be the same again. Nadal's knees had given him problems before, but never to the extent they did in 2012. There was a big question as to whether he'd be the same player again and retain that physical superiority over his opponents.

Rafa then went ahead and won both the French and U.S. Opens and was named the No. 1 player in the world to end 2013. So he's recovered from a slow start to the season before; there's no doubt that he can do it again.

However, Nadal will need to get healthy.

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim noted how much was working against Rafa in the Australian Open final:

Then he tweaked his back and wasn't just in visible pain, but virtually incapacitated for several game. After returning to the court after 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, was clearly compromised.

A rather grotesque blister also hindered his performance in this tournament.

As long as that blister goes away and his back isn't an issue, Nadal is the best player in the world. There's a lot of time between now and the French Open. Once Rafa gets to Roland Garros, he should be 100 percent and should pick up from where he left in 2013.

When you couple everything with Nadal's spotty record in Melbourne—one win and two appearances in the final in nine total Australian Open appearances—this loss looks more like an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.