At this point in his career, Rafael Nadal has put together an incredible set of tools. He is fast enough to play impenetrable defense. He cocks his wrist and bends his knees to such extreme degrees that he has the most punishing, unfair forehand in the game (even when he doesn't hit it for winners, simply returning it wears one down). His lefty kick serve takes you off the court with ease on key deuce points. He simplifies and automates his game so easily that it makes you almost hopeless.
To beat Nadal, then, you have to both go for broke and hit more winners than you ever have, and hope he gets hurt.
We saw the former in incredible upset losses to Steve Darcis and Lukas Rosol the last two years at Wimbledon, in which journeyman players repeatedly went for shots they don't usually hit and watched them land inside the lines. And we've seen the latter plenty of times in his career. For Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open finals, the two factors converged perfectly.
Wawrinka played loose, aggressive tennis in taking the first set against Nadal, 6-3. He watched Nadal injure his back, and Wawrinka stormed to the second set, 6-2. Nadal began to rebound and loosen up a bit and took the third set, but in the fourth, Wawrinka was both more fit and more confident. He hit 11 winners to Nadal's three in the deciding set, broke Nadal twice, and wrong-footed Nadal for an easy forehand winner on match point.
This is an incredible feat on a couple of different levels. First, this completes a nearly impossible late-career peak on Wawrinka's part. Here's what I wrote after his semifinal win over Tomas Berdych:
For most of his career, Stan Wawrinka has been The Other Guy From Switzerland. He was a steady, top-16 level player; from late-2007 through 2012, he reached the fourth round of a slam 10 times and reached two quarterfinals (2010 U.S. Open, 2011 Australian Open). Warinka wasn't incredibly consistent -- washed among those solid slam showings were five first- or second-round exits -- and he wasn't a challenge to tennis' upper tier, but he was putting the pieces of a solid career together.
In 2008, an unexpectedly great showing in the Rome Masters vaulted Wawrinka from 24th in the world to 10th, but while he would remain in the top 10 through October, he would spend most of the next five years between about 13th and 27th in the rankings. As he advanced into his late-20s, that appeared to be his lot in life.
Like David Ferrer, Wawrinka has reached the highest heights of his career well after you're supposed to do so. Unlike Ferrer, he snagged a slam title. This brings us to the second layer of his accomplishment: For just the second time in almost nine years, someone not named Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, or Murray won a slam.
Starting with the 2005 French Open, here is your list of slam champions: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Federer, Federer, Nadal, Federer, Federer, Federer, Nadal, Federer, Federer, Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Nadal, Federer, Nadal, Federer, Federer, Juan Martin del Potro, Federer, Nadal, Nadal, Nadal, Djokovic, Nadal, Djokovic, Djokovic, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Andy Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, Nadal. Wawrinka's win is not only an achievement for himself, it's a sign of life for the batch of players who have played elite tennis but resided outside of the Big Four for most of the last decade.
As Colin Davy told you before the Aussie Open began, it's the beginning of the end for the Big Four. And while at 28 Wawrinka isn't part of a young, hungry, exciting batch of new stars, his win could be a sign that we are entering a period of transition while we wait for said new batch. Just don't remind me that I said this when Nadal wins the French Open, Murray wins Wimbledon, and Djokovic wins the U.S. Open. It's the beginning of the end, not the end itself.
As for Nadal's injury, don't put an asterisk next to Wawrinka's title. Thanks in part to Nadal, tennis has become an absurdly physical sport through the years. Fitness matters more than ever before; to get past Nadal, Djokovic almost turned himself into a cyborg, with fitness levels almost never before achieved. And to get past Djokovic and finally win some slams of his own, Murray basically turned into a 400-meter Olympian. But Murray has spent the last six months dealing with back issues, and in crafting the most physical brand of tennis ever seen, Nadal created something even his own body can't handle at times. He suffered knee, foot, and shoulder injuries early in his career. Knee tendonitis flared up throughout 2008-09. Then the foot became an issue again. And then he missed most of the last half of 2012 because of the knee again.
His physical failures came about because of his physical successes, and the fact that he dealt with injuries in the finals was not a complete surprise. It has happened before and will happen again. But you still have to be ready and able to pounce, and in taking down Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych to reach the finals, then cruising to an easy first-set win against a healthy Nadal, Wawrinka did just that. Wawrinka did everything one needs to do to become a grand-slam champion, right down to getting a little bit of luck on his side.
Stan Wawrinka is incredibly, hilariously humble, as evidenced by his post-victory interviews. He's also a grand slam champion and is about to be ranked No. 3 in the world. The elite level of men's tennis has been dominated by so few names for so long, and a guy with a Samuel Beckett quote tattooed on his arm -- "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better." -- just invaded the top rung by, as Brian Phillips put it, doing a pretty poor job of failing.