Stanislas Wawrinka has won his maiden Grand Slam crown, the eighth seed overcoming an injury-afflicted Rafael Nadal to win a dramatic Australian Open men’s singles final in four sets on Sunday night.
The Swiss won 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 in a match that will be remembered for a confusing and sometimes bizarre final three sets, with Nadal clearly hampered by a left lower back injury and seemingly on the verge of retirement in the second set before battling on.
The victory was Wawrinka’s first over Nadal in 13 career meetings; the 28-year-old had not won a single set against the Spaniard before Sunday night. The win will elevate Wawrinka to world No.3 when the rankings are released on Monday; with Roger Federer dropping to No. 8 after falling to Nadal in the semifinals, Wawrinka will become the first Swiss No.1 other than Federer in 13 years.
Wawrinka’s maiden Grand Slam success comes in his 36th major; only Goran Ivanisevic (37) has taken longer to win a first major crown.
While Nadal’s injury woes will dominate the headlines, Wawrinka’s play in his maiden major final was worthy of a Grand Slam titleholder, especially in the opening set where he settled quickly and hit one clean winner after another to take an early advantage before Nadal’s back betrayed him.
“I feel I play my best tennis during one set and one break, that's for sure,” Wawrinka said.
“I was feeling really good on the court. I was moving well, feeling really aggressive, and I play my best set for sure by far.
“Then (it) wasn't easy. He wasn't serving at all, he wasn't moving during one set. Then was a completely different match. I had to focus on myself, to try to find the way just to win it. I saw that and I knew it was really, really difficult for him. I was unhappy for that because normally that's not the way I want to win the match.
“But it's a final. At the end I won in four sets. I think I finish well the match. To get the win, it's just amazing for me.”
Nadal pulled up short in the third game of the second set, clutching at his lower left back and grimacing in pain. The Spaniard left the court for treatment and could barely serve when he returned, Wawrinka racing through the second set in just 38 minutes, the top seed’s face regularly contorted in pain.
Nadal admitted after the match that his back began to bother him from as early as the pre-match warm-up, and worsened after the 37-minute first set.
“At the beginning of the second (set) was the key moment that I felt, during a serve in a bad movement, is very stiff, very bad,” he said.
“(The) last thing that I wanted to do was retirement. 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.
“Was not an easy situation for me to be on court like this, but I tried hard until the end, trying to finish the match as good as I can for the crowd, for the opponent, for me. So that's what I did: tried everything until the last moment, but was impossible to win this way.”
Faced with a wounded opponent across the net, Wawrinka appeared to lose focus early in the third set, and Nadal pounced. The top seed broke the Swiss in the second game and gradually increased the velocity of his first serve from a pedestrian 120km/h, and intermittently began to rip his trademark forehand. Stung back into life, Wawrinka rallied and had chances to break Nadal in the ninth game, but netted a forehand to gift the top seed the third set with his 15th unforced error.
With Nadal lifting his level, Wawrinka matched the Spaniard’s increasing intensity as the fourth set began, his serve becoming impenetrable. Nadal’s resolve finally broke in the sixth game when Wawrinka nailed a clean forehand winner to take the decisive break, and while he immediately handed the break back with a nervy error-strewn service game, the Swiss quickly broke Nadal again, this time to love, to give himself a chance to serve for the match.
Wawrinka then produced two unreturnable first serves for 30-0, and sealed the biggest win of his career with his 51st winner of the match in two hours and 21 minutes.
Nadal failed in his bid to become one of just three men, along with Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, to win all four Grand Slams at least twice, and missed out on drawing level with Pete Sampras on 14 Grand Slam titles for second on the all-time list behind Federer’s 17.
The loss was Nadal’s second in an Australian Open final, the 27-year-old losing in five sets to Novak Djokovic in 2012, and continued his wretched run of luck with injury in Melbourne. The Spaniard retired in the quarterfinals of Australian Open 2010, was injured in at the same stage of the tournament 12 months later, and missed last year’s tournament altogether with a knee injury.
Nadal said another injury-affected Australian Open was difficult to take at a tournament “that I love so much”.
“Is true that I was not very lucky and this is a tournament that is painful for me,” he said.
“Is a tournament that I feel the conditions are good for me, warm conditions that I like, good crowd. Is a tournament that I really had some troubles physically in my career and is something that is painful for me. But that's part of life, that's part of sport. Is not the end of the world, is just another tough moment.”