By Martyn Herman
LONDON, Nov 6 (Reuters) - He won 83 points to Rafael Nadal's 80, hit 30 winners to the Spaniard's 14, struck more aces and generally played the more inspiring tennis, yet it all ended in familiar fashion for Stanislas Wawrinka at the ATP World Tour Finals on Wednesday.
The 28-year-old came close to beating the world number one for the first time in 12 attempts, losing 7-6(5) 7-6(6) in the most enthralling contest of the season-ending tournament so far.
If there was any consolation after losing his 26th consecutive set to the Spaniard, it was that it was his best display against Nadal, and his challenge is far from over.
Should he beat David Ferrer in his final Group A match on Friday he can still reach the semi-finals on his first appearance in the elite field - and could even set up another chance to end his Nadal hoodoo here at the O2.
Wawrinka has come a long way this year from the talented but inconsistent player of old, scoring eight wins against top-10 opponents - the third-best total on the ATP Tour - and reaching his first grand slam semi-final at the U.S. Open, where he pushed Novak Djokovic into a fifth set.
There is a swagger about the man they call "Stan", and he even had the confidence to have a dig at Nadal afterwards, saying the umpire had failed to stop the Mallorcan receiving coaching from his uncle Toni.
"It's nothing personal against Rafa or against Toni, we know that Toni is always trying to help Rafa," Wawrinka told reporters. "That's normal. That's part of the game. But when it's too much, it's too much.
"Today I didn't agree with the umpire that he didn't tell him something or he didn't give him a second warning just because it was Rafa. We all see. I was there. Before every point, he was trying to coach him."
Nadal was warned for taking too long between points as he tried to fend off a Wawrinka onslaught at the end of a high-quality opening set - a compliment to the way his opponent was playing.
After a sluggish start Wawrinka roared back and broke Nadal to level at 5-5, held serve in the blink of an eye, then looked poised to edge ahead at 5-5 in the tiebreaker only to find some meaty blows repelled as only Nadal can.
On set point down he again looked in control of the point but stumbled as he followed in a thundering forehand, and his volley allowed Nadal to execute a routine pass.
The second set was a similar story, with Wawrinka even closer to taking it when he led the tiebreak 6-5 - only for Nadal to snuff out the danger with a smash.
Two points later it was all over, but Wawrinka walked off with his chest puffed out and cheers ringing in his ears from a London crowd that has taken a shine to the world number eight.
"For me, today I think was really close, but I think I played the right tennis," Wawrinka said.
"So far I didn't win any sets against him. But I need to still look on the positive side, you know. I think today was my best match against him. I think I'm still improving."
(Editing by Stephen Wood)