Stanislas Wawrinka downed Rafael Nadal in four sets to win the 2014 Australian Open, making him the most unlikely tennis Grand Slam winner since Juan Martin Del Potro popped up from relative obscurity to snatch away the 2009 U.S. Open from Roger Federer.
Wawrinka, who jumped to the No. 3 ranking in the world after the victory, is an unlikely tennis champion in this era dominated by Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
That fearsome foursome has dominated men's tennis in recent years, winning 34 of the past 35 tennis majors.
Nearly a decade has gone by without a men's tennis tournament having any semblance of a wide-open feel, but Wawrinka's smooth game broke the deadlock at the top and may usher him into a new era of great fame or, at the very least, great expectations.
He bested Djokovic with a sumptuous return game in the quarterfinals, and then he beat the lanky Czech Tomas Berdych—also a Top 10 tennis player—in a grueling semifinals match that featured three tiebreakers for the right to face the terrifying Nadal.
However, the matchup that seemed like a lock for Nadal was Wawrinka's to lose from the start, as he broke Nadal's serve early and won the first set 6-3.
Nadal pulled up lame with back issues in the second set, and this lack of mobility seemed to confound Wawrinka, as he actually dropped the third set to Nadal 3-6 and looked like he might give away his best chance at a Grand Slam title to a guy sweatily looking around for a back brace.
In the end, Wawrinka pulled through, and his unbelievable road to Grand Slam victory got the tennis-loving portion of the Twittersphere talking, as the man they call the second Swiss (tough to play in Federer's shadow for so long) finally came out on top.
Grantland writer Brian Phillips gave his own unique take on the extraordinary odds facing Wawrinka before the match:
Stat check: The last time someone besides Nadal, Federer, Djokovic or Murray won a major was 1736, when Baron de V__ took the French Closed.— Brian Phillips (@runofplay) January 26, 2014
The folks over at Tennis Inside Out had high praise for the way Wawrinka came out and immediately changed the way everyone looked at this match:
Of course, Wawrinka himself could hardly believe that he had done what many would have considered impossible before the tournament began:
Even Dick Vitale was stunned, but he seems to save his hyperbole for basketball events:
Vitale (@DickieV) January 26, 2014
Nadal may have lost the title, but he gained plenty of respect from observers for the grit and determination he showed during the match:
The biggest loser of the tournament you ask? Perhaps it wasn't a player, but the paying crowd themselves:
Second year in a row the Australian Open final crowd embarrassed themselves. Last year the women, this year the men. #Boo— The Overrule (@theoverrule) January 26, 2014
And if Wawrinka's win wasn't crazy enough, the way he got there was historic as well:
Wawrinka first man ever to beat Djokovic and Nadal in same Slam. Also first in 20 years to beat number 1 and 2 seeds in same Slam. Respect.— Boris Starling (@vodkaboris) January 26, 2014
ESPN's Howard Bryant thinks the Wawrinka win is a sign the times are finally changing in tennis:
Gotta say, Big Four era may be over: wouldn't surprise me if none of them won a Slam this year. Can't last forever, even Nadal at RG...— Howard Bryant (@hbryant42) January 26, 2014
The win may appear to be a breakthrough for Wawrinka and the many other players on the outskirts of major glory in men's tennis, but there is still a strong sense of a stranglehold at the top by the four big winners in recent years.
Federer's elite skills are gracefully fading out, but he still finds himself in semifinals and quarterfinals nearly every time a trophy is up for grabs. Djovokic has stumbled in recent tournaments, but he is still young and can actually improve on certain areas of his game, as crazy as that sounds.
Nadal, when healthy, is a demon on the tennis court, and the most athletic, energetic player in the world—apologies to the sliding stylings of Gael Monfils—is capable of grinding away just about any opponent with his dominant high-energy style of play. Oh, and Murray may not have yet peaked.
Wawrinka's victory is important for those bored with the predictability that has surrounded men's singles over the past few years, but it may take a while longer for any tournament to feel completely wide open, unless Federer's star fades more rapidly than it has or Nadal cannot maintain his fitness.
Wawrinka and Co. are off to Roland Garros and the French Open, and when the red dust settles at the clay courts this year, it will be interesting to see if a new face is left standing as crowned champion.
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