THERE’S no denying his obvious talent, but like many people, I have always found it hard to warm to Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal.
He lacks the flair of Roger Federer, tending to wear opponents down and into mistakes rather than going on the attack himself.
He also seems to take forever between points, wiping his always sweaty forehead and bouncing the ball for what feels like ages before he decides that it’s time to serve.
He’s a grunter, something rare and a bit strange in a male tennis player, and, worst of all, he nearly always tends to get the better of Andy Murray.
To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to the Australian Open final on Sunday and probably would not have watched at all had the previous night’s FA Cup highlights recorded properly on my Freeview+ Box.
I could see no outcome other than a straight-sets win for Nadal against first-time grand slam finalist Stanislas Wawrinka, who, until Sunday, was probably best known for being the other player in Switzerland’s Davis Cup team.
How wrong I was. Wawrinka set about proving me wrong from the first point, playing some great tennis as he won the first set and then broke Nadal’s serve early in the second.
It was at this point that Nadal suddenly seemed to start suffering back pain. I was immediately suspicious, having seen numerous tennis players call for the trainer when struggling and return to the court in the form of their lives.
The Australian crowd and Wawrinka clearly shared my cynicism – but we were all wrong.
Nadal returned to the court alright, but he was still clearly struggling badly. He could barely run and was happy just to get his serves over the net.
He would have been well within his rights to retire – and I fancy that is exactly what he would have done had the match not been a final.
Instead, he somehow fought on, surrendering the second set before amazingly taking the third as he began to feel the benefit of painkillers administered during his medical time out.
He was unable to complete the miracle, succumbing in the fourth set, but his actions in defeat certainly changed my attitude towards him.
According to reports after the match, Nadal’s back began playing up in the warm-up. Once it got to the stage where he called for the trainer, he must have realised that there was no way he could win the match.
Wawrinka was set to win his first major title and Nadal could have made sure that there would forever be an asterisk beside it.
“Oh, that Swiss guy,” people would have said in years to come. “He only won a slam because Nadal withdrew in the final.”
Not only that, but it’s probably the way Wawrinka himself would have seen it.
Nadal deserves a lot of credit for playing on and making his opponent beat him. I’m not sure how many other players would have done the same thing.