A year ago, Nadal's future was very much open to suggestion. In the process of missing seven months with fragile knees that couldn't begin to match his relentless disposition, he was a no-show at the Australian Open.
One year later, we can now savor what he accomplished. Winning the 2013 French Open was hardly a surprise, but the title at the US Open was. He was trying to lift his second trophy in Melbourne and complete a career double Grand Slam.
Wawrinka wasn't about to allow it to happen.
Here's the kind of resolve we're talking about:
Nadal, who began the match nervously, was broken for the first time only 14 minutes in. Wawrinka, for some reason, looking exceedingly comfortable, ran off to a 5-3 lead and found himself serving for the first set. He began with a horrific forehand shank and quickly lost the first three points.
At love-40, Nadal had three opportunities to force the match back on serve. Slowly, surely, Wawrinka climbed even. Then, on set point, Wawrinka made his first first serve of the game -- an ace. Thirty-seven minutes into the match, Wawrinka claimed his first career set from the Spaniard.
The second set was an extension of the first. Wawrinka won the first three points on Nadal's serve and, at love-40, was heartened when chair umpire Carlos Ramos hit Rafa with a time violation. Nadal's subsequent backhand soared long, and Wawrinka, who had won nine consecutive points, was up another break.
In the third game, Nadal appeared to tweak his back and called for the ATP trainer. Nadal left the court for several minutes. When he returned, he wasn't moving well at all and Wawrinka broke him for a third time. As Nadal shuffled off the court, you wondered if one of the most resilient, fearless players ever would retire from the match.
The last retirement in a men's Australian Open final came in 1990, when a pulled abdominal muscle caused Stefan Edberg to walk away from his match against Ivan Lendl in the third set.
Though you had to feel for Nadal, consider how this scenario played out for Wawrinka. Here was the crowning moment of his professional career and there would forever be an asterisk hanging over it.
And then a curious thing happened. Nadal, perhaps feeling the positive effect of painkillers, broke Wawrinka to open the third set. He still wasn't moving well, but Wawrinka -- clearly unsettled by the recent events -- became passive and drifted away as Nadal rang up a 3-0 lead.
Earlier, during Nadal's injury timeout, Wawrinka had gotten into a strenuous argument with Ramos regarding Rafa's departure from the court. When Nadal returned, Wawrinka's focus seemed diminished. At 3-5, he had two break points but couldn't convert. Rafa won the set; suddenly, it felt like a match.
But even as Nadal was reviving, Wawrinka gathered himself. He had a few break points in the fourth game but failed to convert. Then, in the sixth game, his gorgeous backhand down the line gave him a 4-2 lead. Rafa, naturally, broke right back when Wawrinka shrank from the moment.
A forehand winner in the next game, however, put the match on his racket.
This time, Wawrinka didn't shrink.