The grimace said it all. The game was up. Stan Wawrinka had three match points. Rafa had a bad back.
The overwhelming favourite going into the match had fought as hard as he could with no serve, no legs and no hope for the best part of three sets but now he knew the time had come. Stan Wawrinka was about to be crowned as the Australian Open champion and Nadal was about to suffer yet another heartache at Melbourne Park.
He had come to the final match playing well and moving better. His demolition of Roger Federer in the semifinal proved that he was reaching his peak at exactly the right time while the numbers were stacked in his favour: 12 matches played against Wawrinka, 12 matches won against Wawrinka and not a set dropped. And then he stepped out on court for the warm-up to discover that his back had gone into spasm.
At first, the crowd was blissfully unaware of his problems and were marvelling at the aggression and focus of the Swiss underdog. Wawrinka was taking the fight to Nadal and he was winning almost every important battle. He served, he volleyed and he had Nadal on the run. This was not in the script.
In the build-up to the final, all the talk had been of Nadal and his chase to equal Federer’s record of 17 major titles. A win on Sunday would have given the Spaniard 14 Grand Slam trophies, equalling Pete Sampras’s tally, and would have secured a double career Grand Slam. No one had done that in the Open Era; this was Rafa’s chance to rewrite history. This was supposed to be Rafa’s final to lose. So he lost.
By the second set, he was in deep trouble. He went to serve and was in pain. He went to hit a forehand and pulled up short. He bent double to try and stretch out the rock-hard muscles that were holding him back, but it was no good. At 2-1 in the second set, he called for the trainer and headed off court for treatment.
“In that moment I was too worried to think about what happened,” Nadal said. “The physio tried to relax a little bit the back. When that happen during a match is almost impossible.
“I tried hard. Last thing that I wanted to do was retirement. 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.
“So was not an easy situation for me to be on court like this, but I tried hard until the end, trying to finish the match as good as I can for the crowd, for the opponent, for me. So that's what I did: tried everything until the last moment, but was impossible to win this way. Opponent is too good.”
When he returned to a chorus of boos and whistles, he could barely move.
The crowd had no idea just how bad Nadal’s back injury was – hence the boos – but a few minutes later, they realised the error of their ways. The former champion could only roll in his serve and hope that Wawrinka returned the ball somewhere within reach. Moving and hitting was out of the question; hitting winners was almost impossible.
By now, the atmosphere around the stadium was grim. This was like witnessing an execution – we had to watch to make sure the deed was done but no one wanted to see it happen.
Then, after 20 minutes or so, just long enough for the painkillers to kick in, Nadal began to serve a little harder, move a little better and tee off on a few winners. At the same time, Wawrinka was having a mental meltdown – this was supposed to be his moment; he had come with the game plan to beat the best player in the world and it had worked like a dream. Now he was faced with a wounded champion and he did not know what to do. As he dithered, Nadal won the third set but even if that made the scoreline respectable, the injured hero knew that he was fighting a losing battle.
Nadal professes to love it here in Australia, although it is hard to see why.
Oh, sure, the tournament runs like clockwork, the crowds are both enthusiastic and knowledgeable and everyone who makes the long trip south is welcomed with open arms. But almost every January, Nadal is made to suffer. If he is fit enough to start the tournament – and that is not a given, not by any means – he rarely comes through the two weeks unscathed.
Last year he could not compete at all because of his long-term knee problems while in 2011, he pulled a thigh muscle at the start of his quarterfinal against David Ferrer and, again, could barely move as his compatriot won the day. The year before that, he had to retire against Andy Murray with a recurrence of his knee injury. This is not a happy hunting ground for Nadal.
“Is true that I was not very lucky and this is a tournament that is painful for me,” he said. “Is a tournament that I love so much. Is a tournament that I feel the conditions are good for me, warm conditions that I like, good crowd. So is a tournament that I really had some troubles physically in my career and is something that is painful for me. But that's part of life. That's part of sport. Is not the end of the world. Is just another tough moment. Is not the first.”
But all this talk of injuries was not to Nadal’s taste. To win a Grand Slam title requires skill, stamina and physical fitness – he did not come to the court with all three elements and he was soundly beaten by a better player on the day. That is Nadal’s way – he is a sportsman on the court and gentleman off it.
“Just bad day, tough day,” Nadal said. “But lot of people in the world have lot of very tough days. I am not this kind of person, so I feel very lucky. I go home with the calm that I did as much as I can.
“But is the Stan day, not my day. Is the moment to congratulate Stan. He's playing unbelievable. He really deserve to win that title. I very happy for him. He's a great, great guy. He's a good friend of mine. I am really happy for him.”
And so the moment came. Nadal rubbed his face with his racket and then did not move a muscle as Wawrinka hit the final forehand winner to put an end to the torture.
For an hour and a half, he had dared the Swiss to beat him and, finally, Stan dared.
History – or Spanish history – would have to wait and Nadal’s Australian Open misery continued.