Whether you attribute Stanislas Wawrinka's stunning upset of Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final to Rafa's injuries or not, the win may still represent a power shift in men's tennis.
Nadal had been dominant en route to the final. He had lost just one set and had never even dropped a set to Wawrinka in any of their 12 previous meetings. On Sunday, Wawrinka, a hand blister and an injured back were too much for Rafa to overcome.
It's unfair to put an asterisk next to Wawrinka's win because of Nadal's injury. All players deal with nagging injuries here and there. Durability is part of attaining greatness. That said, one would be lying if they said they didn't notice that Nadal wasn't the same player in the final as the one in the earlier matches in the tournament.
While the loss may ultimately be chalked up to the strangeness of a tournament that was unpredictable on a whole, there may be some lasting effects from Melbourne.
Is This the Beginning of Another Injury-Filled Season for Nadal?
Who's to say Nadal's injury issues won't persist throughout the year? It isn't as if that would be news to anyone in the tennis world. Much of Nadal's 2012 season and the beginning of the 2013 season were dogged by physical issues.
The gap between the elite players in the world (Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer) and the rest of the men on the ATP tour isn't that big.
An injury or lapse in play is all it takes to draw things even. After Sunday's loss, Nadal said, per John Pyke of the Associated Press:
Last thing that I wanted to do was retire. I hate to do that, especially in a final. Same time, is tough to see yourself during the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and arrives the moment and you feel that you are not able to play at your best.
Nadal and his fans can only hope this commentary isn't the theme for his entire year.
Is Wawrinka Finally Ready to Join the Class of the Elite?
Another thing to consider is whether Wawrinka has finally taken the step to join the class of the elite. He's always had the talent, but his confidence and consistency seem to waver. This clearly wasn't the case at the Australian Open.
Per BBC Sport, the legendary Pete Sampras was impressed. He said:
This will hopefully be the beginning for Wawrinka. The win over Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals was a big moment. He got through it, he's now a Grand Slam champion and is on his way.
I think the right person won. He played great. He's got a big serve, moves well and has a good touch at the net—he's the real deal.
Injury or not, Wawrinka went through Djokovic and Nadal en route to his title. That's impressive, no matter the circumstance. This could very well be the tournament that officially announces his arrival as one of the world's top-five players.
What's Up With Djoker?
It's hard to know what to make of Djokovic. He's healthy but hasn't won a Grand Slam in over a year. He has never won the French Open, which is the next Grand Slam on the calendar, and he hasn't won any major besides the Australian Open since his magical 2011 season.
Criticisms about his choice to bring in Boris Becker as a coach began when he fell to Wawrinka.
Needless to say, there are some concerns as to how successful Djokovic will be this year.
Can Federer Still Consistently Compete With the Best?
Federer's place among the all-time greats is secure, but there is no denying he has declined. Since the beginning of 2013, Federer's combined record against Nadal, Djokovic and Murray is 0-8.
The once dominant force in men's tennis is now resigned to accepting moral victories in lopsided losses to Nadal.
After losing to Rafa in straight sets in the semifinals at Melbourne, Federer said to the official ATP World Tour site:
It's very encouraging, no doubt. I wish I could have won here tonight and then given an all-Swiss final. That's something I'll regret for a long time.
I think this is a very good start to the season for me overall. I played some really good tennis here. I still feel my best tennis is only ahead of me right now. So I'm looking forward to the next couple of months, how they're going to play out for me, and hopefully by April I feel like I'm going to be at 100 per cent again.
At 32 years old, Federer's last real shot to win a Grand Slam in his career will probably be Wimbledon. It's hard to imagine him having a realistic shot at the French Open or U.S. Open.
No matter how things shake out, this should be an interesting year for men's tennis. Fans love uncertainty in sports, and that's exactly what 2014 is set to deliver.
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