COMMENTARY | He was getting smoked, there's no better way to describe it.
Stanislas Wawrinka was crushing everything that was coming at him and it seemed like the world's best male tennis player, Rafael Nadal, wasn't going to find any answers. He was down a set and a break, and then it happened.
Nadal missed a return, doubled over, grabbed at his bank and winced. A game later, he was on his way to the locker room for treatment. When he came back, there was next to nothing on his serves.
Rafael Nadal didn't retire from the men's singles final of the Australian Open because of his back injury. He pressed on and managed to win the third set. But he ended up losing in four. Stan Wawrinka had won his first grand slam.
Rafael Nadal was hurt. Or was he? Of course he was. He wouldn't fake an injury to gain some mental edge in a match, would he?
And if he did, is that so wrong?
Gamesmanship is as much a part of the sport of tennis as the second serve. The idea is to disrupt your opponent's flow, upset the tempo, do whatever it takes to stem momentum. It can be something as subtle as taking your time toweling off between points. It can be something as overt as going off on a chair umpire for 10 minutes, which John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors turned into an art form back in their day.
But injury timeouts and bathroom breaks tend to be the most effective means to accomplish this goal. Novak Djokovic was accused of it often earlier in his career. Victoria Azarenka was accused of it in last year's Australian Open in her victory over Sloane Stephens.
Is it cheating? No. Is it fair? Depends on which player you want to win the match.
The thing is , you still have to play the rest of the points, unless the injured party retires. You have to overcome gamesmanship like you overcome the elements and hostile crowds, and whatever else is in your way. Blaming gamesmanship is as much an excuse for a loss as it was too windy or too hot on the court.
Gamesmanship can also extend beyond the match, especially if you happen to be a top player. Nadal lost to Wawrinka in Melbourne, but you could say he was really defeated by the back injury. He hadn't dropped a set to Stan in 12 previous matches. So the injury certainly can make this loss look like an aberration.
Honestly, I believe Rafa was really hurt. By his reaction after the match, Stan believed it, too. But given their history and the way the match played out, there may doubt in Wawrinka's mind if he really could have won against a healthy Rafa. If that's the case, than the injury actually had a benefit.
In other words, gamesmanship doesn't even have to be intentional. Whatever mental edge Stan's grand slam championship may have earned has been nullified in this scenario. Next time they play, he'll have to prove it again from square one. They can't take the slam away from Stan, but Nadal supporters will see it with an asterisk depending on what happens between them going forward.
Serena Williams has the same thing working for her on the women's side. She's so dominant, we almost look for an injury to blame for her losses. When she lost to Ana Ivanovic in Melbourne, it came out later that she had been struggling with a back problem and had considered pulling out of the tournament.
Credit Serena for downplaying the injury, just as did Nadal. Both said the right things after their matches. But the effect is the same. Serena lost but wasn't defeated, at least in the eyes of many tennis fans.
It's the way the game is played.
Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime tennis follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafael Nadal
- Stanislas Wawrinka