Rafael Nadal vs. Stanislas Wawrinka: Examining Historical Impact of Men's Final

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Rafael Nadal vs. Stanislas Wawrinka: Examining Historical Impact of Men's Final
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If you saw this coming, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.

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Considering that Novak Djokovic lost in the Australian Open quarterfinals and Rafael Nadal knocked out Roger Federer himself in the semifinals, it looked like the No. 1 ranked Nadal was well on his way to taking home the first Grand Slam title of 2014.

All he had to do was get past the relatively unheralded No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka.

As Greg Garber of ESPN.com pointed out, not even the biggest Wawrinka supporters could foresee a victory over the dominant Nadal:

Optimists pointed out that three of their past four sets, in London and Shanghai, went to tiebreakers, but few -- if any -- truly believed Wawrinka could beat the 13-time Grand Slam singles champion in a best-of-five match.

But in the fortnight of his life, Wawrinka has continually defied the gravity of history, suspending his (and our) disbelief.

Then the match started.

Wawrinka cruised to what was a relatively straightforward four-set victory 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. It is only fair to point out that Nadal suffered what looked to be a serious back injury in the second set that likely hampered him for the remainder of the match.

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However, Wawrinka’s victory should not come with an asterisk.

Wawrinka was already in control of the match after winning the first set and looked extremely comfortable in the second. What’s more, Nadal actually won the third set after his injury took place, but Wawrinka was undeterred.

The championship wrapped up an incredible tournament for Wawrinka that included victories over No. 28 Vasek Pospisil, No. 17 Tommy Robredo, No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 7 Tomas Berdych. The Djokovic match went the full five sets, and the Berdych showdown featured three tiebreakers in four sets.

As for Nadal, the loss is surely disappointing, but he shouldn’t hang his head after beating No. 25 Gael Monfils, No. 16 Kei Nishikori, No. 22 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 6 Roger Federer (in straight sets) to get to the finals.

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While the upset itself was more than enough to draw headlines, there was an historical element to the outcome.

For one, Wawrinka had a 0-12 career record against Nadal heading into the match and had even lost all 26 of their sets. In Nadal’s illustrious career, there wasn’t a single player whom he had beaten more times than Wawrinka without suffering at least one defeat.

Wawrinka’s victory marked his first career Grand Slam singles title in 36 tries. It made him only the fourth male player in Open era history to win his first against a player with at least 13 Grand Slam championships.

Talk about David versus Goliath.

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Wawrinka also became only the second player from Switzerland to win a Grand Slam title. Perhaps you have heard of the first one—some guy named Roger Federer.

Wawrinka’s championship was particularly notable because he knocked off No. 2 Djokovic as well. He became the first male player since the 1993 French Open (Sergi Bruguera) to defeat both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds at a Grand Slam event.

While the historical precedent set for Wawrinka is of the positive variety, looking at the potential history from Nadal’s point of view is a case of what could have been.

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The 13-time Grand Slam singles champion could have tied Pete Sampras with his 14th title had he won. Sampras is widely considered one of the greatest ever to play, which would have put Nadal in rarefied company. Ironically enough, it was Sampras who was there to award the trophy to Wawrinka.

Furthermore, a win over Wawrinka would have given Nadal a career-double Grand Slam (where he would have won each Grand Slam at least twice).

In retrospect, though, Nadal’s past year has been incredible. He missed the last Australian Open (and quite a few months) with knee problems but bounced back to win the 2013 French Open and the 2013 U.S. Open.

Considering where he was a year ago, Nadal should take no shame in reaching the finals of the Australian Open. History was just on Wawrinka’s side this time.

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