What Rafael Nadal has called his unluckiest grand slam has defeated the 13-time major champion once more. The injury this time not the knee, or even the blister, but the back, leaving Stanislas Wawrinka as the new Australian Open champion. A momentous upset on paper; a full story that reveals much more.
Wawrinka was leading 6-3, 2-0 when Nadal's back appeared to lock up on serve during the third game of the second set. He left the court for a a medical time-out at 1-2 as an agitated Wawrinka demanded to be told the exact nature of the problem, and returned, shirtless, to an ungenerous chorus of boos from around Rod Laver Arena.
It was a surprising reaction that appeared even more uncharitable when the level of the top seed's discomfort became clear. The overwhelming title favourite was struggling so badly that he departed from his famously obsessive on-court routines, and if painkillers had been called for, they would need some time to kick in.
Meanwhile, Nadal's serve had slowed to the point of ineffective, his movement was badly compromised, and his distress obvious from his body language. He played on, but so mildly for a time that it was unclear for how long he would continue. Not since 1990 has an Australian Open men's final ended in retirement, when Stefan Edberg was forced out with an abdominal injury in the third set against Ivan Lendl.
This one was played to its conclusion, but not without a few more twists. Wawrinka, too, became affected, having outplayed Nadal until the injury intervened, and managed well enough for a time after it, but then found himself struggling for rhythm and intensity against the wounded Spanish bull.
The so-called Stanimal who had toppled three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals needed to bare his fangs again, but was suddenly rather toothless, listless, tame, as the error count grew, and an improving but still restricted Nadal served out the third set 6-3 after breaking in the opening game.
Wawrinka finally broke again with a forehand down the line in the sixth game of the fourth, only to drop his own with a dreadful lapse, then broke again and finally served out the final 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to deny the courageous Nadal a second Australian and 14th major title that would have equalled the number won by trophy presenter Pete Sampras, and moved him to within three of Roger Federer, with the near-certainty that is the French Open to come next.
The celebration was restrained, out of respect for Nadal, but Wawrinka had nevertheless become the first man to beat the top two seeds at a grand slam since Sergi Bruguera at the French Open in 1993.
Wawrinka, 28, will soar to No. 3 in the world, was already guaranteed to become the Swiss No. 1 ahead of Federer for the first time, and now becomes just the sixth man to win a major title since the first of Nadal's eight Roland Garros titles. He admitted he never thought he would make it to a grand slam final, but there are no cheap ones in the men's game as it
now is, and how unfortunate if circumstances diminish the value of this one.
The shame is that he was clearly the better player when both were healthy. His defence was excellent, his attack exceptional. Nadal was not reading the serve, despite Wawrinka's low percentage on the first ball, and the man who had pushed Federer around so mercilessly two nights earlier was feeling the force of some nasty shoving himself.
After acknowledging the great Nadal, Wawrinka spoke of the many tears he shed after a five-set heartbreak against Djokovic at Melbourne Park last year.
''In one year, a lot happens. I'm still not sure if I'm dreaming or not, but we'll see tomorrow morning.''
Nadal, who missed last year's tournament, and suffered tournament-thwarting mishaps in 2010 and 2011, struggled to remain composed when given a huge post-match ovation. ''Last year was very tough moment when I didn't have the chance to be playing here,'' he said. ''This year was one of the more emotional tournaments in my career.''
Wawrinka had not claimed a single set in his previous 26 against Nadal, so was understandably anxious about the prospect of serving for this one at 5-3. It started with a wildly mis-hit forehand, and continued with a succession of missed first serves to 0-40, but his ability to win the next five points was enormous in the context of the match.
But having stormed through one set, how would he handle another? The answer came in the first game, with a blazing break to love, Nadal unhappy to earn a time violation warning from chair umpire Carlos Ramos at 0-40, but unhappier still to find himself down a set and a break when the eighth seed cracked a backhand return winner.
Then the drama, then all the rest of it. Including joy and relief.