Is Rafael Nadal an Unstoppable Force Entering 2014 Australian Open Men's Final?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014

Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland during their semifinal at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Aaron Favila/Associated Press

On Sunday in the Australian Open men's final, first-time slam finalist Stanislas Wawrinka will try and upset Rafael Nadal.

It won't be an easy task.

Since coming back from his seven-month layoff to rehab his knee last February, Nadal has made the finals of three of the past four slams, winning at the French Open and the U.S. Open. Now, he's trying to make it a clean sweep with the title in Melbourne. 

In 2013, Nadal was an unthinkable 75-7 with 10 titles. Of his seven losses, three came to Novak Djokovic, and four came after the U.S. Open, when Nadal was a bit burned out after such an enormous season. But the Spaniard has started off 2014 with a spring in his step, showing no signs of fatigue. He's off to an 11-0 start and already has one title in Doha.

Nadal after winning the title in Doha to start 2014.
Nadal after winning the title in Doha to start 2014.Osama Faisal/Associated Press

If anything, the 13-time major champion is getting even better at tennis as the days go by.

He has risen to the occasion in each match he's played this year, clearing every obstacle in his way. After scrapping through the field in Doha, he came into the Australian Open ready to make up for lost time after missing the tournament last year due to his knee injury.

It hasn't been simple, but the 2009 Australian Open champion remained focused on the task at hand when he battled the hometown favorites, Aussie Bernard Tomic and teenager Thanasi Kokkinakis, in the first two rounds on Rod Laver Arena. 

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Then in the third round against electric Frenchman Gael Monfils under the lights, Nadal took his game to the next level, dominating the No. 25 seed 6-1, 6-2, 6-3. After the victory, he was so thrilled with his performance that the typically understated Nadal was overcome with emotion.

Things didn't get any easier after the Monfils encounter, though. Nadal faced two of the best prospects of the up-and-coming generation, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov, in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively. Both men played some of their best tennis, and Nadal was struggling with a bad blister on his hand that made it difficult for him to grip the racket properly. But he fought through his discomfort and survived.

Finally, he played his best match of the tournament against Roger Federer in the semifinals, bulldozing his way back into the Australian Open final for the third time in his career.

But as Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated notes, it's not just that Nadal is winning, it's that he's reinventing the game of tennis in the process. 

What Nadal plays on the court is not always tennis. It’s akin to some kind of tribal dialect. Yes, it bears a resemblance to the court game involving a racket, balls and a 78-by-27-foot grid of boxes. But it is wildly different from any other player’s game—past, present and, we can safely say, future.

Nadal's depth of shot, movement, pace, placement and power are a deadly combination. He's so good at all areas individually that if he's having an off day in one area—for example, he could not find the range on his forehand in his quarterfinal against Dimitrov—he can make up for it elsewhere.

He defends like a clay-courter, but he can whip cross-court backhand winners from any position on the court. He serves and returns well, but he grabs control of the match away from his opponent with his relentless topspin and penetration.

He's just dominating, and his insatiable drive to improve and compete has led him to his current stranglehold of the No. 1 spot on the ATP World Tour.  

If Nadal wins the Australian Open on Sunday, he will have 15,130 points, a nearly 5,000-point lead over No. 2 Djokovic. He'd have almost 10,000 more points than would-be No. 3, Juan Martin del Potro. That's such a big gap that it's laughable. 

Nadal and Wawrinka first met at the 2007 AO. Nadal won 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.
Nadal and Wawrinka first met at the 2007 AO. Nadal won 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.ROB GRIFFITH/Associated Press/Associated Press

But as this fortnight has taught us time and time again, even the biggest favorites can fall, and even the most unthinkable outcomes can occur. 

Wawrinka, No. 8, will be out there playing tennis on Sunday too. Though he trails the head-to-head with Nadal 0-12, Wawrinka has already turned around his luck against Djokovic in this tournament, so he's feeling confident. 

The key for Wawrinka will be to play strike-first tennis and to try to play the match on his own terms. It's a task much easier said than done, but Nadal is aware that the 28-year-old Swiss is playing the best tennis of his life. After his semifinal win, he told AusOpen.com that he is prepared for a tough battle:

(Wawrinka is) serving unbelievable. He's hitting the ball very strong from the baseline. Very, very quick. Is very difficult to play against him today. I know will be a very, very tough match. If I am not able to play my best, I think I will not have chances because he's coming to this match with a lot of victories and playing great.

It's true that Wawrinka is playing phenomenal tennis, but this final is all about the greatness of Nadal. He's chasing his first slam of 2014, his second Australian Open title, his third major since his comeback and his 14th major overall. He certainly won't be lacking in motivation.

In sports, nothing is a given. Nobody is unbeatable. But in tennis, Rafael Nadal is as close as it gets.

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