World No. 1 Rafa Nadal's quest for four Grand Slam titles in a row came to an end tonight, heartbreaking news for his millions of fans around the world. A new record was not meant to be set, not this year at the Australian Open.
Fellow Spaniard and No. 7 David Ferrer held his composure to eliminate Nadal in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Ferrer advances to his second Grand Slam semifinal to face fifth seed and British No. 1 Andy Murray.
At the time Nadal was interviewed in the tunnel before entering the court, he said he was fine. But after the grueling 17-minute and 22-shot game, when he was broken in his first service game it was found to be otherwise, although he broke back right away.
In the post-match interview, he repeated, "Here, seriously, before the match of today I started to feel that I am playing much better and I am very healthy and don’t have no problem in general."
Nadal called for a medical timeout and exited with his racket in his hand into the tunnel to return after a little more than seven minutes. It was unclear (and is still unclear) what the injury was about. An ATP physio saw him during the changeover after the fifth game.
Speculations over his injury continued: Leg, ankle, stomach tear, etc. until he began stretching his left leg at the conclusion of seventh game. Nadal was constantly talking to his box on every possible occasion, with his grimaced look. It was inaudible what he was saying.
He continued to play, though his movement was severely compromised. Due to this, he trailed 2-5 in the first set, mostly missing from his backhand side. Nadal broke back and held his serve to trail by only one break, 4-5.
In the ninth game changeover, he was heard telling the trainer, "After the set."
Australia Day fireworks came at the conclusion of the fifth game, second set. It must have given Nadal some relief, as the match was adjourned for about 10 minutes.
Instead of resting, Nadal was loosening up his body during the fireworks. He changed his shirt for the second time (or third?) in this brief period and also briefly left for the tunnel to talk to the doctor.
Some thought he might retire after the fireworks, like he did last year on the exact same day while trailing by two sets and three games in the third set in the quarterfinal match to Murray.
There was quiet and somber mood in the Rod Laver Arena, except on those few occasions when Nadal fist-pumped and the fans tuned along, hoping for his miraculous comeback.
There was only one shot played in the entire final game of the match; the rest were serves unreturned.
Nadal's love and respect for the game prevented his second retirement at the Grand Slam level.
In the press room, Nadal begged not to discuss about his ailment and diminish Ferrer's win:
"So you are ready to write everything. I don’t have to tell you about what I felt on the court because I tried my best all the time. But is obvious that I didn’t feel at my best. I had a problem during the match, in the very beginning. After that, the match was almost over. So that’s what I can say.
"But you know what, for me is difficult come here and speak about. In Doha I wasn’t healthy. Today I have another problem. Seems like I always have problems when I lose, and I don’t want to have this image, no? I prefer don’t talk about that today. If you can respect that, will be a very nice thing for me. Thank you."
However, Rafa added that "seriously, I was playing like this in the first exhibition in Abu Dhabi. After that starts the problem. Was a difficult month for me, no?"
Apparently, the unknown virus effect that began in Doha has continued, and hopefully it is nothing serious.
Tennis fans, it is not the right time for saying, "so much for the Rafa Slam," or ridiculing those who were singing Rafa's utter domination, or questioning his co-GOAT status, etc. but to pray for his earliest recovery.
Tennis needs this hero.
Salute to the brave heart who completed the match and on his exit received the standing ovation of the crowd. Despite the quarterfinal loss, Nadal will not drop any ranking points and his No. 1 is safe until the French Open.
He will be back sooner than doubters think.