After letting the distraction of Rafael Nadal's painful back problems cost him a set, Stanislas Wawrinka regained his composure to win his first grand slam title with a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory yesterday in the Australian Open final.
The 28-year-old Swiss player had never taken a set off Nadal in 12 previous meetings, but attacked from the start against the 13-time major winner. "It's really not the way you want to win a tennis match, but in a grand slam final I'll take it," Wawrinka said. Nadal appeared to be on the verge of retiring in the second set, when he hurt his back and needed a medical time out, but he refused to quit.
The left-handed Spaniard was a hot favourite to win the title and become the first man to win each of the four grand slam tournaments twice in the Open era - instead, his injury curse struck again in Australia. It remains the only major he's hasn't won at least two times.
"Rafa, I'm really sorry for you, I hope your back is going to be fine, you're a really great guy, good friend and really amazing champion," Wawrinka said as he accepted his first major trophy. "Last year I had a crazy match, I lost it. I was crying a lot after the match. But in one year a lot happened - I still don't know if I'm dreaming or not but we'll see tomorrow morning."
Wawrinka lost in five sets to Novak Djokovic in the fourth round of the 2013 Australian Open, in the longest grand slam match of the season. Djokovic went on to win his third consecutive title at Melbourne Park, and then beat Wawrinka again in five sets in the US Open semi-finals.
But Wawrinka avenged those losses this time, beating Djokovic in the quarter-finals and then beating seventh-seeded Tomas Berdych in the semis.
Now, after being the first man in 21 years to beat the No 1 and No 2-ranked players en route to a major title, Wawrinka will move from No 8 to No 3.
In doing so, he'll surpass 17-time grand slam winner Roger Federer - who lost to Nadal in the semi-finals - to become the highest-ranked Swiss player for the first time in his career.
"I need to say many thanks to Stan, you really deserve it," Nadal said. "Luck was against me today but you really deserve it.
"Last thing that I wanted to do was retire. I hate to do that, especially in a final. Same time, is tough to see yourself during the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and arrives the moment and you feel that you are not able to play at your best. "
Nadal has had a terrible stretch with injuries at the Australian Open, and has described it as his unluckiest slam.
He won the title in 2009, and lost an epic five-set final to Djokovic in 2012. But he missed last year's edition during a seven-month lay-off with knee injuries and illness, and his quarter-final losses in 2010 and 2011 were affected by injuries.
There hadn't been a retirement in a men's final there since 1990, when Stefan Edberg quit against Ivan Lendl.
Another was looming when Nadal was serving at 0-2 in the second set. He grabbed his lower back and grimaced in pain and his serve dipped to 141km/h. Nadal took a time out after falling behind a set and a break and returned to boos without a shirt after seven minutes. It seemed he would retire.
Wawrinka was upset during the time out, demanding officials tell him why Nadal needed the break. He came out aggressively to finish the second set with Nadal barely able to serve.
Nadal fought back in the third, winning back the fans for his bravery as Wawrinka's error count crept up - but the Swiss then got his game back together.
"It has been a very emotional two weeks - I'm sorry to finish this way," Nadal said. "I tried very, very hard - this year was one of the more emotional tournaments in my career."