By Nick Friend
This year’s Australian Open should always be remembered as the tournament of Stan Wawrinka, the Swiss number two, who became the first man since Juan Martin del Potro at Flushing Meadows in 2009 to break the Murray-Federer-Djokovic-Nadal stranglehold on tennis’s four big prizes. In fact, only Wawrinka and the Argentine are the only other men to win a Grand Slam since 2004.
Anyone who beats Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych and Rafa Nadal in successive rounds deserves everything they get. Wawrinka, for so long a forgotten man of men’s tennis thanks to the dominance of his compatriot Federer, began to escape the shadow of the great Swiss when he defeated Andy Murray to reach the US Open semi-finals. Yet still he came to Melbourne knowing that victory would be verging on a miracle.
He claimed after his victory that he “never expected to win a Grand Slam”. To be fair, he had a fair point. Men’s tennis is in the strongest position it has ever seen; imagine rocking up as eighth seed for a Grand Slam and realising that those above you include Messrs Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray– arguably four of the top ten to ever play the game. To have the mental capacity to not only overcome this barrier but the physical barrier of Djokovic and Berdych in the way of even reaching a first Grand Slam final is an immense achievement.
As Pete Sampras confirmed afterwards, Wawrinka’s game is complete. His mental fortitude aside – especially after Nadal threatened to come back in the third set, Wawrinka has the baseline power as well as the touch at the net which is required to compete with the ‘big four’.
For me, nothing comes close at present to watching the world’s best male tennis players doing battle. Tennis is the only sport out there that retains the ancient gladiatorial ‘fight to the death’ concept. Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Tsonga, Ferrer, Wawrinka, del Potro, Berdych – the list is endless.
The standard is obscenely high: Andy Murray is now fifth in the world rankings. Wawrinka has shown here that it is an open shop – not as it is in the women’s game at present where, Serena aside, there are no world-class players. The men’s game is an open shop because there are nine or ten brilliant players. Yet, there is one who, I believe, will leave the game as the greatest sportsman of all time.
Rafael Nadal, ultimately, came second, but as always he was a humble and gracious runner-up. The man is the monster of all monsters. The way in which he dismantled a rejuvenated Roger Federer with one and a half working hands and a crippling blister was outstanding. His return to the sport since being humbled by Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon in 2012 has been unprecedented. Rafa romped to victory as he always does at Roland Garros and blew away the field at the US Open in 2013. Federer has seventeen Slams to his name – three ahead of the Spaniard at the moment.
Federer paints a picture when he plays; he is the Da Vinci of the sport. Yet, men’s tennis is about more than fluid stroke play-Nadal is a warrior and a gladiator and he deserves the title of the best ever. Federer’s groundstrokes are liquid gold but Nadal represents what is needed to win a Grand Slam in this platinum era for men’s tennis, though this is not to say that Federer doesn’t have Rafa’s attributes.
Yet, at two nil down in sets in a final in which he had been second best even before his back seized up, the easy option would have been to pack it in and rest what has always been a troubling injury for Nadal. However, this is Rafa we’re talking about, he doesn’t quit and he didn’t for two reasons. One, he is far too respectful of an opponent and a crowd who had paid great money to watch the greatest warrior that tennis has ever seen. Two, you haven’t beaten Nadal until that match point has been won. He doesn’t lie down, and his resurrection in the third set was herculean.
Clearly distressed and in total agony, he fought against all the elements to make a game of it. Typically of the man, Nadal pointed that this was “Stan’s day” and that his back injury should be ignored. That was why he carried on. Wawrinka would rather look back on this day as the day he beat the world’s greatest player than tell his grandkids that he beat Nadal by default. Conversely, Rafa being Rafa would, and could, never forgive himself if he were to quit mid-match. Rafa Nadal is no quitter, he is a street fighter and a warrior.
So, while Wawrinka may have won the battle, the greatest fighter of them all won the war and the hearts of the world’s tennis fans.
Photographs: Kenneth Hong & Peter Figura