Playing Through Pain

There’s something small I will remember about the Australian Open men’s final last weekend. In case you missed it, Stanislas Wawrinka beat Rafael Nadal in four sets to take his first grand slam title. The result of the match was somewhat muddled.

On the one hand Nadal wrenched his back very early in the second set and was all but immobile for the remainder of the match.

On the other hand, Wawrinka was utterly dominating Nadal before the injury became obvious* and was playing about as well as I’ve seen anybody play -- he was crushing forehand and backhand winners and serving insanely well. My guess is that it would have been Wawrinka’s day even if Nadal was healthy.

*Nadal did say he felt at least a twinge in his back from the start. But what I will remember is something different, something that I kept thinking while watching the match. If you saw it, you know: Nadal was almost helpless after the back injury. He went off the court for six minutes and returned to boos -- people probably thought he was playing a little gamesmanship. Nadal is not above gamesmanship, but in this case he was in agony. It became very clear right away. He could not move.

So, he was spinning in his serve at less-than-club-pro speeds. He would not even bother to chase after a ball that was two or three steps away. One thing you always notice about Nadal is that he’s an outrageous sweater -- the guy rains sweat all over the court. This is because of the way he digs into a match -- it’s like he claws himself into another dimension. The sweat is staggering. If you wrung out one of those disgusting towels those poor ball-retrievers hold, you would have enough sweat to soak Rhode Island.

Well, he more or less stopped sweating after the injury because he more or less stopped moving. He could not dig in. He didn’t even go and get his sweat towel. He was too hurt to run.

For a stretch of time in the second set, it seemed inevitable that Nadal would default the match. There seemed no compelling reason for him to continue. He had no realistic chance to actually win the match, he was obviously in pain, he was just prolonging the inevitable, there was no point to it. But, well, it was the final of the Australian Open. And so Nadal played on, if you could call what he did playing. He puffballed in 80 mph serves. He might return shots that were within his general swinging range but that was it. It was a sad thing to watch.

And then the third set -- I will remember that third set. It wasn’t exactly gripping tennis. Nadal was still immobilized (the announcers kept saying, “Well, maybe he’s loosening up” every time he returned a shot, but he did not seem to moving any better). But something interesting was happening. Nadal seemed to decide, hey, he might as well just try something. And here’s what he did: He started to hit this slice serves that had a little weird spin to them. And he tried to guess where Wawrinka was going to hit his shots before he hit them -- not unlike the carnival barker who tries to guess your weight. He would go to a spot and wait and hope Wawrinka hit the ball there.

It was just a tiny bit of genius from a wounded man. He would move to that spot in anticipation of a Wawrinka shot and then unload a risky shot of his own to try and end the point. Sometimes he guessed wrong, of course. But often, shockingly often, he guessed right. And he did hit that winner. This happened often enough that Nadal broke Wawrinka. And, improbably, he took a lead in the set.

Wawrinka, for a few moments there, lost his head. He did not seem to know what to do against this desperate strategy. Wawrinka misplayed returns off nothing serves. He hit shots right into the middle of the court, the one place where Nadal could respond. He seemed to hit the ball where Nadal anticipated it time after time after time. Let’s face it: He was overwhelmed by the moment -- he clearly didn’t want to hit cheap drop shots against an injured Nadal, he didn’t really have a strategy for this sort of match. Here he was on the brink of a dream, on the cusp of winning his first grand slam event. And it was nothing like what he he dreamed.

Nadal had to know his spell wouldn’t last. Sure, maybe he did hope that he could bluff his way through for a little while and his back would loosen up at some point and he could get back in the match. Nadal is a fighter. But I tend to believe, deep down, he knew the loss was inevitable.

No, I think it was something else driving him, something that might just be my own wish. Here’s what I think: I think Nadal wanted Wawrinka to EARN the championship. And I don’t think he wanted that for himself or for the sanctity of the tournament or anything like that.

I think he wanted it for Stan Wawrinka’s sake.

Look: Here’s a guy everybody in tennis seems to love. He’s the second-best player from Switzerland, which is a bit like being the second-best golfer named Tiger, and he’s been around for a decade or more, and last year was the first time he’d ever reached the semifinal of a grand slam event. This was obviously the first time he’d ever reached a final. Everyone admires the guy, the way he’s improved his game, the way he’s hung in there through the hard times. This is a guy who has a Samuel Beckett quote tattooed on his arm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

And I think Nadal didn’t want to retire, didn’t want to give in, because he wanted Wawrinka to WIN his championship, to face his demons and, if he could, overcome them. I think Nadal -- perhaps without even thinking about it -- thought Wawrinka deserved the chance to defeat a worthy opponent. So he tried to be as worthy as he could. He shook Wawrinka’s spirit in that third set. He got into Wawrinka’s head. He won the set though he could barely move at all. It was now up to Wawrinka to settle himself and finish the job.

Wawrinka did finish the job in the fourth set. He was shaky for much of the set and Nadal still showed an uncanny talent for anticipating where the ball would be hit and for testing Wawrinka’s nerves. We’ll never know for sure if Wawrinka could have put away a healthy Rafa Nadal, but that’s playing what-if history. And it’s beside the point.

When Wawrinka did win, he did not celebrate much out of deference to his friend Nadal. Instead he leaned over the net to check on Nadal’s health. And while we could not precisely hear what Nadal said at that moment, you could tell that he was saying: “I’m fine. Enjoy your moment. You won.”

And then afterward: “Stan, he really deserved to win that title. I’m happy for him. He’s a great guy, a good friend of mine.”

He did deserve it. Nadal made sure of it. That’s the beautiful gift Rafa Nadal gave Stan Wawrinka in Melbourne. He played through pain and put up a fight and made his friend Stan Wawrinka win it.