When he emerged from the locker room after a medical timeout in the first set, Rafael Nadal, head down, trudged onto the court with a mix of frustration and disappointment on his face. As he walked to get his racquet, he looked up, caught the eyes of his Uncle Toni, his longtime coach and mentor, and gave a simple shake of the head. "Nope."
The quest for the Rafa Slam ended Wednesday night in Melbourne when Rafael Nadal dropped his quarterfinal match at the Australian Open in straight sets to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. Nadal had been seeking his fourth straight win in a major.
Hobbled in the second game of the match, Nadal received medical attention twice in the opening set. It was later revealed to be an injured left thigh that left the nine-time Grand Slam champ out of sorts for the entire affair. He never got comfortable in the first set, losing 6-4. At times, he could be overheard muttering, "It's not working."
The second set brought some signs of life. Nadal broke Ferrer early (though was quickly broken back) and it looked like whatever the trainer had given him finally kicked in. There was a little fight in his eyes and you got the sense that the top-ranked player in the world had something left in him yet. And then the fireworks came. Literally.
An annual tradition on Australia Day, the 15-minute pyrotechnics display lit up the Melbourne sky and forced the players off the court midway through the second. It was the worst possible timing for Nadal, who had finally begun to look fresh on the court. He tried to keep his leg warm during the break, but to no avail. When Ferrer and Nadal returned from a brief locker-room break, Nadal was back in first-set form. He couldn't get to balls. His timing was off. He looked like a broken man.
A lesser man would have retired. Maybe Rafa would have too (he did last year in Melbourne), had he not been going for four major titles in a row and wasn't the No. 1 seed. After all, no top seed had ever retired from a match at a Grand Slam. He wasn't going to become the first, so he fought onward. It was a gutting scene, watching the greatest tennis player in the world gingerly playing a match, still fighting on each point but doing so with the knowledge that it was going to be a fruitless effort.
Take nothing away from Ferrer, who identified Nadal's injury and was able to capitalize by serving out wide, going for passing shots and waiting for Nadal to make a mistake. He advances to his second Slam semifinal and his first since the 2007 U.S. Open.
But the night was about the other Spaniard. All that talk of who's greater -- Federer or Nadal -- may eventually come down to health. Federer is rarely hurt. His fluid groundstrokes and the effortless way he gets to balls have kept him fresh even as he approaches 30 years old. Nadal's body takes a beating every match. He goes hard at everything, is tough on his knees and, up until a year ago, played tournaments with the frequency of a journeyman trying to keep a top ranking. He's already missed significant time with a knee injury and other ailments. Will the all-out style of play that catapulted him to the top eventually be his undoing?
Another Grand Slam, another missed opportunity for a Nadal-Federer final. The two men haven't played each other in a major since the 2009 final in Melbourne. On that night, Federer was in tears after losing to Nadal, leading to questions about whether his career was over. Two years later, he's still alive in the tournament while the man who bested him limped off the court in defeat, left to wonder if his best chance at history had just slipped away.