Was that the Shark?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The debate over Rafael Nadal’s fitness in the Australian Open has raged on in some places despite the two-pronged futility of the discussion. First of all, I’m not aware of anyone who has said with any credibility or precision just how much pain Nadal felt, and what he did or didn’t do to alleviate it from the start. Second, nothing is going to change the fact that Stanislas Wawrinka rode the crest of a magnificent first-set performance and won his first Grand Slam title last Sunday, while Nadal was denied the opportunity to book his 14th—a feat that would have tied him in the title count with Pete Sampras.

The first of those realities is particularly interesting to me because of how that critical first set of the final played out. Let’s face it, had Nadal won that set, Wawrinka’s win (assuming he would have ultimately prevailed over his badly injured opponent) could much more easily be described as tainted. The fact that Wawrinka played such an outstanding set helps dispel the theory embraced by too many Nadal fans—that were Rafa not injured, he would have won the match.

I’m doubly confident that Wawrinka might have won that match in any event because that first set featured one game that ranks as one of the most unexpected and extraordinary things I’ve seen in tennis. That was the final game of what turned out to be a 6-3 set for Wawrinka. 

I’d like to know just how fit Nadal was in that critical game, because it was not only the most un-Nadal-eseque game I’ve ever witnessed, but because it could also go down as the moment when Rafa first showed what I’ve always described as “champion’s fatigue.” That’s the condition that afflicts great players at that stage in their careers when they suddenly fail to muster the requisite will, skill, and/or nerve to sustain excellence, or to survive desperate straits.

Another way to describe it is that tennis players often experience a moment when they “jump the shark” in their careers—e.g. Roger Federer’s failure to convert two match points in his U.S. Open semifinal battle with Novak Djokovic in 2010. It’s silly to try to be too precise about this, but like any tide, there’s a high point followed by an inevitable if not always dramatic ebb. In any event, the game had to be remarkable to anyone who’s followed Nadal’s career.

It went like this: Wawrinka broke Nadal with relative ease at 15-40 in the fourth game to assume a 3-1 lead. After a routine hold in which Wawrinka smacked two aces, Nadal fought off a break point with a service winner targeting Wawrinka’s backhand to stay within reach at 2-4. Wawrinka then recorded his 33rd consecutive hold game to go up 5-2, and Nadal answered with a strong hold for 3-5.

Wawrinka found himself serving for the set, and tasked with checking the fit of his big-boy pants. He didn’t fare so well. He clocked a prodigious forehand shank—a tribute, perhaps, to his pal Federer, who must have been perched on the edge of his couch. Then Nadal drilled a forehand winner down the line. Next, a brief rally ended with a monster of an inside-out forehand winner by Nadal. 0-40.

Legions of Nadal fans must have breathed an enormous sigh of relief at that moment, for here there man was with three break points in hand. I’m not sure anyone could imagine Nadal missing that chance to break, especially given the fact that Wawrinka hadn’t, and wouldn’t, put a first serve into play in the entire game. And even if someone could envision Nadal blowing that game, he certainly couldn’t have predicted how it would happen.

Nadal made terrible service-return errors on the first two break points, bringing the score to 30-40. Nadal retreated a few steps back toward the wall around the court to receive the next serve. Again, Wawrinka showed him a second serve, but the Nadal return was a wild flyer, and that made it deuce. Wawrinka finally relocated his serve and hit a service winner to the backhand, but it wasn’t an entirely convincing one—as attested by the fact that Nadal was so frustrated by the miss that he punched the strings of his racquet. That brought Wawrinka to set point. He took it with an ace.

Thus ended the first set, in a mere 37 minutes. Did Rafa botch that game so uncharacteristically because he was hurt, or was this a first, early warning that henceforth the wins will not come quite as inexorably or convincingly as they have for such long periods in his career? 

It’s an interesting question that will put Roland Garros, if not the entire Euro-clay swing, into a compelling perspective. That’s not just for the natural, obvious reasons, but also because of the way this last major was seen by many as a potential, legacy-shaping event in Nadal’s career. 

A win Down Under would have taken Nadal one critical step closer to matching Federer’s record 17 Grand Slam singles titles. But more important, it would have given the rivalry in the record books a final, definitive stamp of credibility. It would have sent the signal that the chase is on and it’s for real—a theme that would only be enhanced if Nadal achieved something that has eluded even the great Federer thus far. For had Nadal won the Australian Open, he would have become only the third man (behind Rod Laver and Roy Emerson), and the only one in the Open era, to win each of the four majors at least twice.

Nadal will be 28 this June. His rival Federer won exactly two majors after he turned 28. Federer's birthday was shortly after he won Wimbledon in 2009, and just a few weeks before he lost in the U.S. Open final. So even if you concede Roland Garros to Nadal in 2014, he will still face a pretty tall order with three more majors needed just to tie Federer. 

But don’t underestimate the value of Nadal’s unique talent for winning Roland Garros. Given the demolition of the theory that tennis inevitably and increasingly will be a young man’s game, it isn’t inconceivable that Rafa could win enough titles at Roland Garros alone to wind up with 18 majors.

The dilemma I see for Nadal is the role of Wimbledon in his quest. It seemed that he hurt his chances to win in London for a third time when he capitulated to doctor’s orders and skipped the warm-up grass court event at Halle last year. Subsequently, he lost to Steve Darcis in the first round at the All England Club. Nadal’s knees certainly take a beating during the Euro-clay season, but does his proficiency on the continent now become a liability across the channel in England? 

We’ll have to see how it all unfolds. But the waters in the English Channel might be just as shark-infested as those around Australia, at least for tennis players.

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