Australian Open: Waw! Nadal taken apart

Rafael Nadal is built of a material we don't understand. He can be booed and given a time violation, his back can seize and his movement die, his serve can be tossed in at a mere 116kmh and his tears dried with a towel, but he will not give you the match. No way. You must grab it from him. Tug it from his blistered hand. Heart of a lion. Naah, that's too small.

But in an Australian Open final which lurched from breathtaking to baffling to memorable, Stanislas Wawrinka did snatch it away. Finally Nadal's spinning forehand found a single-handed backhand that did not flinch. Finally another Swiss, who turned temporarily frail in the face of Spanish courage, did not fall.

Wawrinka was the fitter man, the finer man, the deservedly victorious man. He defeated the world No. 2 Novak Djokovic at this Open and in the one truly contested set of the final, the first, he outplayed the world No. 1.

No asterisk need be put near Wawrinka's name in the record books, no question mark must surround his win. He won his first Grand Slam title 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 and broke a 16-Slam domination by the Big Four. He has come from tennis' periphery to make a history so grand that for a while it did not even make sense to him.

"It's quite crazy," Wawrinka said. "I never expect to win a Grand Slam. I never dream about that because for me, I was not good enough to beat those guys." Now he is. Now, to use his favourite word, he is "amazing".

If Wawrinka, a modest man, had a smile stamped on his face, Nadal's despair was evident in how every word seemed an emotional effort. Yet he asked that questions on his back quickly cease and offered no excuse: "This is Stan's day, not my day."

Pete Sampras described tennis recently as "staying back and throwing rocks". This was understatement. The Swiss came out chucking boulders and hurling stone slabs or at least it's what his forehand and backhand resembled. Just to confirm his admiration of Roger Federer, he did some serve and volleying as well.

Wawrinka lacks the usual lean athletic musculature, his clothes speak of no style, his hair wears no jell. He is like a bank manager having a weekend hit, till he moves and strikes and morphs into a smooth player.

So ferocious was his first-set hitting that he first drew gasps, then cheers, then a break to 3-1 with a whistling forehand. No one pushes Nadal like this. No one wins 12 straight points from 0-40 at 5-3 in the first set till the second when the Swiss broke again and led 2-0. It was, said Wawrinka, "the perfect start".

But suddenly Nadal was bent over in pain and it was not just an existential one. He felt a tweak in his back in the warm-up, late in the first set "it feel worse", and during a serve early in the second he knew it was "very stiff".

At 0-2, Nadal left the court for a medical time-out and returned to rude boos. He was massaged at changeovers and once served so slowly it took a few seconds for the radar gun to display it. The moving man had come to a painful standstill.

The second set went in a blink to Wawrinka and a retirement seemed imminent. For anyone else, not Nadal. "I hate to do that, especially in a final. I tried hard until the end, trying to finish the match as good as I can for the crowd, for the opponent, for me."

So a three-quarter Nadal kept playing and a complete Wawrinka oddly fell apart. The Swiss made 20 unforced errors in the first set, yet 19 in the third. A first big title stood before him and its enormity rattled him. "I start", he said, "to be really nervous as I realised that I could win a Grand Slam."

If it was hard for Nadal, for whom misfortune tests his character too often, it was as hard for Wawrinka for playing an injured rival is complicated. Instead of hitting winners into space as he did, he played to Nadal as if waiting for error from the injured man. Said the Swiss, "I was like, Okay, miss, miss, make a mistake."

The mistake was his and perhaps Nadal's painkillers kicked in, for as Wawrinka tightened mentally, the Spaniard loosened physically. Nadal broke to 2-0 in the third, stole the set, and now the match was no longer about a back, or feet, or hand-eye co-ordination. This was tennis distilled to a single part: the head. And Wawrinka was shaking his.

But this is another Swiss and another Wawrinka. A braver one and a wiser one. Both men exchanged breaks in the fourth set, then Wawrinka hit a patented forehand down the line, broke to 5-3, and pointed at his head as if the levers and wheels of his competitive brain had clicked into place.

The biggest upset since Arthur Ashe tactically dissected Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final was complete. Wawrinka's reward is a No. 3 ranking and a congratulatory call from the current No. 6. "Roger call me... He always wanted the best for me."

Wawrinka stands as both remarkable tale and inspiring example. To be a new player is just an idea, to find the conviction to be that new player in a first final, against Nadal, is astonishing.

There is a tattoo on his arm with the words from the Irish poet Samuel Beckett which reads: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." His rival Nadal will still try, for this is who he is. But Wawrinka did not fail and this is now who he is.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.