When does history mean nothing? How do you find hope where none should exist? Where, ultimately, does belief come from?
Walking onto the court at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday evening in Melbourne, Stanislas Wawrinka was confronted by these eternal questions. Few suspected he would have the answers.
The 28-year-old Swiss player came into this Australian Open final with a 0-12 record against Rafael Nadal, having lost all 26 of their sets. Nadal had never defeated another player more times without a defeat.
Optimists pointed out that three of their past four sets, in London and Shanghai, went to tiebreakers, but few -- if any -- truly believed Wawrinka could beat the 13-time Grand Slam singles champion in a best-of-five match.
But in the fortnight of his life, Wawrinka has continually defied the gravity of history, suspending his (and our) disbelief.
In one of the most disjointed men's major finals in recent years, Wawrinka defeated an injury-plagued Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
"I'm really happy," Wawrinka told the crowd.
He referenced last year's debilitating five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the fourth round.
"I was crying a lot after the match," Wawrinka said.
He may cry after this one too.
Raise your hand if you saw this one coming.
A sweet forehand winner down the line delivered that elusive title, but his celebration -- after a warm congratulations from Nadal -- was subdued.
The record will show that Nadal suffered a sudden and undisclosed back injury early in the second set, but the fact is, by that point, Wawrinka had already crushed Nadal's spirit. When Wawrinka sent an ace down the middle to collect the second set, Nadal barely moved. He gingerly walked off the court, an expression of pain -- and sadness -- on his face.
"Many thanks to Stan. You really deserved it," Nadal said after receiving his runner-up plate. "Very happy for you.
"Sorry to finish this way. I tried very, very hard."
When the crowd interrupted him with applause, Rafa teared up.
Fourteen-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras was on hand to present the trophy to a grateful Wawrinka, who will be ranked a career-high No. 3 among ATP World Tour players when the sun rises Monday. Nadal will have to wait until at least the French Open to draw even with Sampras.
After a dispirited third set from Wawrinka, he collected himself and finished the job. In his 36th Grand Slam tournament, Wawrinka is only the second Swiss player to win a major title. You know who the first one is. Yeah, a guy named Federer.
Wawrinka became the first man to defeat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds at a Grand Slam since Sergi Bruguera at the 1993 French Open. He is also the only the fourth male player in Open era history to win a maiden Grand Slam singles title against a player with at least 13 majors on his résumé. The others: Marat Safin against Sampras in the 2000 US Open, Lleyton Hewitt a year later at the US Open, again against Sampras, and Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open in 2009 against Roger Federer.
That begins to underline the magnitude of this upset.
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.