Stanislas Wawrinka is the 2014 Australian Open Men’s Singles Champion. In the minds of many heading into today’s final this was an improbable result. Each and every statistic seemed tilted in favour of his opponent; 27 year old 13 time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal. Rafa led the pair’s head to head 12-0 with 0 sets lost and looked primed to continue his domination of his 28 year old opponent, not to mention his sprint into the record books. Victory would have made Nadal the first since 1969 (the beginning of the open era) to have won each grand slam at least twice. The stage was set for a bout of superlatives surrounding another legendary Nadal display. What we didn’t count on heading into the match was the law that governs all sport: anything can happen. Despite a courageous performance, Nadal succumbed to back spasms and an opponent whose play at times was nothing short of pulverising.
Carrying momentum and confidence as a result of his epic quarter-final win over many people’s pre-tournament favourite Novak Djokovic (9-7 in the fifth set), Wawrinka started his first ever grand slam final without a trace of nerves. He harassed Nadal with booming strikes off both his backhand and forehand wings, rushing out to a 4-1 first set lead. He then closed out the set in emphatic fashion: hammering an ace out wide to claim the opener 6-3.
Rather than let up, Wawrinka began to loosen up in the second set. He broke Nadal’s serve once more with a picturesque backhand return winner, spread-eagled on the stretch. The whispers of an upset were beginning to become rumblings. Then came the pivotal moment in the match – after netting a forehand at 30-0 up while 0-2 down in the second set, Nadal immediately clutched his back wincing. Although he managed to win the game the signs were ominous. The world number one took a medical time out that angered not only Wawrinka but also the crowd who proceeded to boo him when he returned to the court. Was this a ploy to waste time and halt an in form opponent?
The answer to that question was provided instantly, Nadal’s physical struggles were painfully obvious to see. He began to pump in first serves at pedestrian speeds and his movement was limp and slow; 6-2 Second Set Wawrinka. “Give Up” cried a member of the crowd Nadal, beaten and battered must have been tempted to do just that and become the first man to retire in an Aussie Open final since 1990, but then he wouldn’t be the great champion that he is. What followed was one of the most bizarre sets of tennis in recent memory. Wawrinka flustered by his opponent’s refusal to give in began to lose his hold on the match and seemingly his mind too. As Stan began to disintegrate Nadal forced his way back into the contest; a slew of unforced errors by Wawrinka combined with a series of blistering winners by the Spaniard who had no choice but to go for broke resulted in a 33 minute surprise third set for Nadal.
With Nadal surging Wawrinka needed to re-assert his dominance in the fourth set and take home the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup before things got messier. That’s exactly what he did – the Swiss struck a forehand up the line to break serve in the 6th game of the set and inch into a 4-2 lead. But Nadal clung on, delaying the inevitable with a final bout of resistance. He broke back immediately to win what would be his last game of the match. Then with the score at 4-3 Wawrinka once again pounded Nadal with a forehand down the line for a 5-3 lead. When his three match points arose; Wawrinka seized the first with, you guessed it, another forehand down the line past his helpless opponent.
Wawrinka’s celebrations at the end of this dramatic battle were muted. His achievement however cannot be understated. Under the guidance of his coach Magnus Norman, Wawrinka has found the mental strength to crack the code and become the first man outside of tennis’s’ “big four” to win a grand slam this decade. His forearm tattoo reads: ”Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” It has served him well. The man dubbed “Stanimal” for his ferociously aggressive tennis has been much maligned throughout his career. Seemingly content as Swiss Number 2 and a sidekick to the legendary Roger Federer, he finally emerged from his compatriot’s shadow, blasting his way into the limelight to claim a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory.