Streaking to his right, Rafael Nadal was well wide of the doubles alley when he launched a bending backhand around the net post for an audacious winner, driving Roger Federer into deflation and some fans into delirium.
The world No. 1 covers the court with the vigilance of a surveillance camera and plays with prescience of someone who reads the game like a blueprint. Rolling past rival Federer and into his 19th Grand Slam final in his 37th major, Nadal faces Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open as a champion armed with a unique skill set poised to solidify his status among iconic greats.
Speaking of icons, Hall of Famers Rod Laver and Pete Sampras watched Nadal deconstruct Federer from the stands Friday night. On Sunday, the top seed enters the final as the overwhelming favorite to equal Sampras’ mark of 14 Grand Slam titles, and to join Laver and fellow Aussie Roy Emerson as the third man to win each of the four majors twice.
The eighth-seeded Wawrinka is a very dangerous player who has started the season on a nine-match tear. But even in his red-hot state, Wawrinka may have to combat the mental trauma that can haunt victims of a horrific past if he falls behind early. And there's this: Rafa has not dropped a set in amassing a 12-0 record against the Swiss—in fact, he has never beaten another player more times without a loss. Although Stan has shown signs of life pushing three of their last four sets to tiebreakers, taking a set from the Spaniard has been as challenging as blunting a blow torch with a Band-Aid.
If that isn’t ominous enough, Nadal believes he’s entering the final playing his best tennis of the tournament.
“I am moving quick. I am able to come back from difficult situations,” Nadal said. “With great shots of the opponent I am able to keep producing power on the shots. And produce great shots from very difficult positions.”
Still, a strong-willed Wawrinka has shown that he can lift his level when the degree of difficulty spikes. He shrugged off an ignominious 13-match losing streak against Novak Djokovic in defeating the three-time defending champion in a gripping quarterfinal, before beating Tomas Berdych to reach his first Grand Slam final in his 36th major appearance.
Wawrinka is shot-maker who can strike down the line off either wing and close at net. He can alter spins and speeds with his multifaceted one-handed backhand, dictate with his serve, and is carrying confidence from winning 11 of his last 12 major matches—and four of his last six meetings with Top 10 opponents.
“[I] take the confidence from my level in general. I know that I'm playing my best tennis,” Wawrinka said. “I'm moving well. I'm really aggressive. I'm serving well. I always find solution. So that's where I take solution, the confidence.”
If ever there was a time for Wawrinka to breakthrough against Nadal, this is it, yet the 13-time Grand Slam champion’s confounding topspin and relentless court coverage create a completely different challenge—just ask Federer.
“It's totally different playing Rafa over anybody else. Playing Murray or Rafa is day and night,” Federer said after falling for the ninth time in 11 major meetings to Nadal. “It's not because of the level necessarily, but it's just every point is played in a completely different fashion and I have to totally change my game.”
Since Nadal defeated Mariano Puerto in the 2005 Roland Garros final to capture his first Grand Slam title, he’s chewed up most one-handed backhand opponents with vigor, and should be grooved after defeating a pair of one-handers in succession. Nadal competes with primal ferocity and plays cross-court combinations with patience and primary logic: He knows if he bangs his heavy topspin forehand to the backhand side, he can draw the mid-court reply or coax Wawrinka into playing the lower-percentage backhand down the line.
But there's more: The fact that Nadal, who won only 39 percent of his second-serve points against Kei Nishikori in the fourth round, captured 73 percent of his second-serve points against Federer despite the sizable blister on his racquet hand tells you he’s locked in location on serve. Even if he’s suffering stinging pain in his palm, Nadal has this match in his hands.
Tell me that Wawrinka is more explosive than the last man to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam match—Steve Darcis, who hit his one-hander brilliantly in an opening-round Wimbledon shocker last summer—and I won’t argue with you. Sure, if Wawrinka is thumping his serve he can test the Spaniard in tiebreakers, but the reality is that Nadal has won all six of the tiebreakers they’ve played, has a better career tiebreaker record (Nadal is 171-97, while Wawrinka is 106-134), and he’s won all five tiebreakers he’s played in this tournament.
Wawrinka has been inspired in Melbourne, but Nadal has been imposing in this match-up. He’s playing for history, and I see him earning the title trophy from presenter Sampras on Sunday and closing the gap on rival Federer in the all-time major title race.