COMMENTARY | For Rafael Nadal and his supporters, the dream of a second career Australian Open title transformed into a nightmare during the final round of the tournament Sunday.
Facing an aggressive Stanislas Wawrinka competing in his first major final, Nadal appeared to suffer a debilitating injury during the second set and became a shadow of himself in terms of on-court presence.
Make no mistake, Stan Wawrinka earned the title Sunday, but there should also be no doubt over the question of Nadal's health. Rafa was suffering -- a state of being that has virtually become synonymous with his career as a professional athlete.
After tweaking his back during warmups and taking a medical timeout early in the second set, Nadal returned to action and appeared nothing like the player that has won 13 Slams.
His serve suffered along with his back, and was henceforth delivered approximately 30 kilometers/hour slower than it had been in the first set. It appeared as if the Spaniard could hardly bend over, which forced him to spin his serve into the service court, as opposed to delivering it with any sort authority or pinpoint placement.
Even more distressing was the impairment to Nadal's legendary movement and defensive capabilities. Due to pain and limitations in his body, Nadal was forced to watch balls pass him by that he would normally be retrieving if not returning with interest.
It was also clear during the second set that the Spaniard was mulling potential retirement from the match. Fortunately, Nadal decided against that and instead experimented with a new strategy to try and overcome the realities of his injury.
In the third set, Nadal started going for his shots, as opposed to his traditional preference for long rallies, and for a short time the strategy paid unexpected dividends. Nadal miraculously took the set, but things would only go downhill from there.
Wawrinka, much like the crowd in Rod Laver arena, had likely been hypnotized by the bizarre site of Nadal competing in such a fragile state. Captivated by a wounded player that typically fights tooth and nail, with every essence of his being, for glory. A player that was now moving around the stadium as if that particular well had run completely dry.
Wawrinka recovered enough of his faculties in the fourth set to realize that even this husk of Nadal could be a threat, and snapped back to attention. The Swiss player subsequently put a fairly anti-climactic end to the proceedings, using some of the emphatic shot-making he showcased throughout the tournament.
For Nadal, a player that has frequently spoken with relish of suffering, this match likely marked a new low in terms of emotional disappointment. A surprising development, given that Nadal had previously participated in a heartbreaking loss to Novak Djokovic -- the longest Grand Slam final ever, played on the same court.
The onset of the injury was particularly difficult to stomach because the final came quickly on the heels of one of Nadal's most complete performances in recent memory. In straight-setting the "new" Roger Federer during the semifinals, Nadal appeared ready to roll not only in the Australian final, but well beyond, too.
That perceived momentum, combined with the fact that Nadal possessed a 12-0 record against Wawrinka, made the misfortune of injury even more shocking for the Spaniard and his camp.
It was plainly written on Nadal's face that he was suffering on Sunday, and maybe more so than ever before in his career. The tears falling on his cheeks, with the outcome still in question, were clear enough evidence that he had no doubt how the contest would end.
Two years after that epic final against Novak Djokovic, Nadal was back on the same court, preparing once again accept the runners-up trophy. And the worst part for Nadal and his supporters wasn't even the result itself.
The most depressing aspect of the final was that Nadal wasn't able to do what he does best --- compete, battle, struggle -- the relentless fight that has come to symbolize his career.
Having been struck by yet another injury, Nadal was forced to watch the match mostly pass him by, with little or no power to influence the result.
Win or lose, more than anything, Rafael Nadal simply wanted to play his game on Sunday. And it was clear as day to anyone watching that he could not.
That's why Rafa and his fans are suffering today, and likely will be for some time. The opportunity to complete the career double Slam is now at least a year away, and maybe much further out of his grasp than that.
If there's one saving grace to this unfortunate story it's that Rafa always seems to emerge even stronger after a period in which he faces extreme adversity.
Given the degree of emotional and physical pain he was forced to endure Down Under, one has to believe Rafa will return with a vengeance.
For the sake of Rafa's continuing career, and the spectacle of high-quality professional tennis, let's hope so.
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. Tweet him @AndrewProchnow.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafael Nadal
- Stanislas Wawrinka