In tennis, youth is fleeting and the body is always vulnerable.
At 32, Roger Federer has been spoken of as an old man for at least two years, and his run to the semi-finals in Australia was viewed with genuine surprise in some quarters. His surrender to Rafael Nadal once there, however, was both expected and slightly disheartening. They will meet again but what we like to call the great Nadal-Federer rivalry is over, and has been for some time.
By Justin Bryant – @Keepers_Union
The most competitive and compelling rivalry these days is Nadal-Novak Djokovic but we were denied that by the bristling power and accuracy of Stanislas Wawrinka, long the second-fiddle Swiss on the ATP Tour. After dispatching Djokovic in the quarters and human/robot hybrid Tomas Berdych in the semifinal, Wawrinka simply walloped an injured Nadal off the court, steadying his nerves after a bad third-set wobble to join Juan Martin del Potro as the only men outside the recognized Big Four to win a Grand Slam in nine years.
For Nadal, the script was as familiar as it was disappointing. His injury troubles have been well documented but nowhere have they derailed him more consistently than in Melbourne. He missed last season’s tournament with the knee injury that kept him out of action for seven months, and played (and lost) with injuries in both 2010 and 2011. He lost a heartbreaking six-hour final to Djokovic in 2012, and has only his title from 2009 to remember without misery.
In truth, this never looked like Nadal’s tournament to win. He struggled with an ugly, open blister on the palm of his left hand, and consistently left balls short in matches with Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov, both of whom outplayed him for long stretches of their matches. And yet Nadal won six of the seven sets against the two. He dispatched Federer with disquieting ease but it’s hard to conclude anything from their matches these days. Roger does not cover the court as he once did. It is only fractionally noticeable against other players; Nadal exploits it ruthlessly.
Yet Nadal, too, is vulnerable, and once he began clutching at his back in the final, with Wawrinka already up a set and a break, the match was as good as over. That Nadal came back from the brink of retirement and even won the third set surprised nobody but winning was too big an ask against a player – much like del Potro before him – making the most of his first appearance in a Grand Slam Final.
Wawrinka, 29 and long the second-fiddle in Swiss tennis, is a deserving and popular winner. Many casual fans are understandably weary of the Nadal-Djokovic hedgemony, which followed a period of Nadal-Federer dominance, prior to which Federer had a stranglehold on tennis for five years. Major talents such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer, and Tomas Berdych have threatened but failed to break through at big events. With his woeful head-to-head record against Nadal and Djokovic especially, Stan seemed an unlikely bet. But with powerful and fearless tennis, he slayed both, and now finds himself the number three player in the world.
When Nadal lost his epic final to Djokovic here in 2012, the Serb had just beaten him for the seventh tournament final in a row and was, to use the lazy parlance of pundits and commentators, ‘in his head.’ Nadal has added three Grand Slams since then, Djokovic only one. But then as now, his greatest threat is not Federer or Djokovic or the newly-minted Grand Slam champion Wawrinka. It is his own body. He will be 28 by the time he defends his US Open title. Already his hair is thinning. Already there are players on tour who were still in grade school when he won his first French Open. Tennis usually allows the lesser part of a decade near the top; rarely more.
“That wasn’t tennis,” said shell-shocked German player Andreas Beck back at Wimbledon 2008, after losing to Nadal in the first round. “I was thinking all the time, what the hell is he doing? It’s not a game, what he’s playing. I had no chance against him.”
Nadal has enforced that unrelenting physical style on a generation of opponents, and it has taken its toll on both them and him. Before being beaten by Wawrinka, there was already talk that he could surpass Federer’s record 17 Slam titles by next year, given his hardcourt resurgence and clay dominance. Yet he remains equal parts dominant and fragile. His back injury is not thought to be serious, and he will arrive in Paris as the favourite.
For him, Melbourne, as this year proved once again, is no Paris.