The Swiss player long known as someone who could give top players a run for their money (but who could never finish the deal) finally broke through with a four-set win (6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2) over the No. 1 player in the world on one of the world's biggest stages.
Tennis fans love their champions, but there's nothing better than watching an underdog fight through a brutal draw to win a Grand Slam title, which is what Wawrinka did at Melbourne Park for two weeks this January.
Nadal came into the final angling for his 14th Grand Slam championship. He'd never before lost a single set to Wawrinka in 12 previous matches—two of which came in majors. It was a given that he'd cruise to another title against an opponent who'd never before shown an ability to hang on the court.
On the other side, Wawrinka had already bettered his previous attempts at the Australian Open (or any other Grand Slam, for that matter) by just reaching the final.
This is a guy who, before the tournament, downplayed his own expectations, as noted by 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.
His comments can be viewed as highly realistic, given his past struggles, and in hindsight, it's clear the Swiss champion wasn't lacking confidence when it came to crunch time.
After receiving a couple of breaks early in the form of an early retirement by Andrey Golubev in Round 1 and a walkover in Round 3, Wawrinka faced long odds in the latter rounds. He dispatched Tommy Robredo (No. 17) in three sets before a fourth-round matchup with No. 2-ranked Novak Djokovic.
To that point in the proceedings, Djokovic hadn't lost a set, but he couldn't find enough firepower to overcome Wawrinka, who won an epic five-set match to advance. The hard-serving Tomas Berdych (No. 7) proved to be no match, either, and then it was time for the final.
After Wawrinka's win over Nadal, Yahoo! Sports' Ian Nolan noted that he's the first player to take down the two top seeds since 1993:
Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim points out the significance of the win: "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."
History will look back at the final with a critical eye. Nadal suffered what appeared to be a painful back injury during the second set, and the action was generally sloppy and uninspired by both men. However, the result makes Wawrinka a major champ, which is good for the sport of tennis.
It can get awfully boring watching the same few players win the big tournaments every year. For so long, it's been Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer winning Grand Slam tournaments while everybody else watched, and while it's always incredible to see legends at their best, it can also get a bit stale.
Thankfully, Andy Murray finally broke through with his first Grand Slam at the end of the 2012 season at the U.S. Open, and he followed it up with a Wimbledon title in 2013. And now, we can add Wawrinka to the list of viable champions after he finally broke through with a major win of his own.
Going forward, there's going to be more excitement and anticipation at Grand Slams. With at least five legitimate stars capable of winning the title, the level of interest in men's tennis will continue to soar, which is great for the sport.
This win by Wawrinka came on the heels of his first career semifinals berth at the 2013 U.S. Open. He's clearly ascending, as his upcoming No. 3 world ranking illustrates. Up next is the 2014 French Open, where he's never gotten out of the quarterfinals.
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