Australian Open 2014: Examining Long-Term Impact of Nadal vs. Wawrinka

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Australian Open 2014: Examining Long-Term Impact of Nadal vs. Wawrinka
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Stanislas Wawrinka pulled off a stunner that threatens to shake up tennis' status quo by defeating an ailing Rafael Nadal in the men's Australian Open final.

Entering the final bout as the heavy underdog, Wawrinka stormed past the world's No. 1 men's tennis player in the opening two sets before regaining his edge in the fourth and final one. The upset earned Wawrinka his first Grand Slam title during his first trip to a final:

Entering the showdown, Wawrinka had never bested Nadal, let alone won a single set through 12 matches. But the Spanish star suffered from a back injury that forced him to call a medical timeout during the second set and grind through the rest of the contest in pain.

Nevertheless, Wawrinka hoisted the hardware in Melbourne, taking down the sport's top-two players in the process. By besting Nadal and No. 2-ranked Novak Djokovic en route to his title, the 28-year-old Swede became the first player since 1993 to conquer the No. 1 and No. 2 players during the same Grand Slam, according to BBC Sport:

What bearings does this unexpected turn of events hold for the future? Has Wawrinka broken into an exclusive group of men's tennis stars, and will Nadal's body betray his chance at rewriting the record books?

 

Wawrinka Proves He Belongs

Don't let Nadal's injury tarnish a watershed moment in Wawrinka's career. He played the best tennis of his life to change up the division's hierarchy.

Does Stanislas Wawrinka deserve recognition as an elite player after winning the Australian Open?

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Men's tennis is not one for parity. Wawrinka became the first man other than Nadal, Djokovic, Roger Federer or Andy Murray to take home a Grand Slam since Juan Martin del Potro seized the U.S. Open in 2009.

Although David Ferrer consistently lingers around the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Big Four have dominated the sport over the years. With Federer and Nadal doing most of the heavy lifting, they have combined for 37 major titles.

He's older than all of them besides Federer, but Wawrinka provides a fresh face who has now crashed their elusive club.

Before breaking the barrier in this Australian Open, Wawrinka was constantly knocking on greatness' door. He previously pushed Djokovic to the brink in two epic matches, including last year's bout at Melbourne.

He did not prevail in that five-hour, five-set thriller, but Wawrinka exacted revenge with a semifinal victory this time around in what Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim labeled his "signature victory." 

Wawrinka, 28, is a longtime top-20 habitue who has won five titles and nearly $10 million, and regularly ventures into the fourth round of Grand Slam tournaments. And yet this was, unquestionably, the signature win of his career. Twice in the last 52 weeks he battled Djokovic to five sets in majors with nothing to show for it but moral victories. Somewhere along the line—inspired, one suspects, by Djokovic—he tattooed his forearm with the words: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better." 

Wawrinka dusted off defeat and slayed two giants in his effort to make the Big Four a Fab Five. Look for him to prove this run was no fluke.

 

Tough Break for Nadal

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

On the other hand, Nadal can't do much other than shrug, tend to his back and realize he can't win them all.

After the match, he admitted his back went out early. Per the Australian Open Twitter page:

Yet he somehow won the third set, 6-3, despite battling substantial pain. Down two sets with a bad back, he had to know his chances were slim to none, yet he kept competing for the Melbourne crowd that slowly swayed to his side.

Nadal entered 2014 on a tear, making him a popular choice to match Pete Sampras with his 14th Grand Slam title. He returned from a knee injury with a vengeance last year, going 75-7 with 10 titles. After enduring his lowlight of 2013 with a quick Wimbledon exit, Nadal bounced back to win his next three tournaments, including the U.S. Open.

The only concern now is Nadal's current state of health. He recently sat out seven months due to the knee injury before returning stronger than ever, so the 13-time champion deserves some benefit of the doubt.

As for falling short to Wawrinka in the final, it happens. Nadal has overcome adversity before, so don't expect him to stay down for long.

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