Before the tournament had even started, Rafael Nadal described the Australian Open as his unlucky Grand Slam.
But this year it seemed like the injury jinx that had plagued him in previous years — 2006, 2010, 2011, 2013 — had finally lifted. Aside from a badly blistered and bandaged left hand, he was injury free.
That was until he got to the final — a match that Nadal was the clear favorite to win against Stanislas Wawrinka. The top-ranked Nadal had beaten Wawrinka in all 12 of their previous matches.
What transpired on center court Sunday was one of the more unusual Grand Slam finals in recent history. Not only did Nadal lose, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, but he was loudly booed after taking a medical time out in the second set. As he struggled and pushed the match to four sets, it became clear that the 13-time major winner had become the underdog. The crowd rallied behind him chanting "Ra-Fa! Ra-Fa!" to show their respect because he refused to quit.
When Nadal accepted his runners-up trophy, he apologized to the crowd and to Wawrinka, a friend since they were teens.
"I'm sorry to finish this way," Nadal told the crowd in the 15,000-seat Rod Laver Arena, which erupted in cheers that made him blink back tears. "This year was one of the most emotional tournaments in my career."
A player who does not typically show emotion off the court, Nadal repeatedly spoke over the past two weeks about how meaningful it felt to return to Melbourne this year. At news conferences, he recalled all the times he couldn't play at the Australian Open, dating back to the 2006 tournament when he was sidelined with a foot injury. He won the trophy in 2009 but in 2010 had a knee problem and retired in his quarterfinal against Andy Murray. In 2011, he strained a leg muscle early in his quarterfinal defeat to David Ferrer.
He missed the 2013 Australian Open during a seven-month layoff for illness and a knee injury but later returned to the tour to win the French and U.S. Open and take over the No. 1 ranking from Novak Djokovic.
The 27-year-old Spaniard with the relentless hustle arrived in Melbourne poised to become the youngest man in history to win 14 Grand Slam titles.
Breaking the curse in Melbourne also would have made him the first player to win each of the majors twice in the Open era.
But when Nadal stepped onto court Sunday for his warm-up, he felt a twinge in his lower back. It got worse in the first set and by the second set when he went to serve it was "very stiff, very bad," he explained in his post-match news conference.
"The last thing I wanted to do was retire. No, I hate to do that, especially in a final," Nadal said, hiding his face at times with the brim of a baseball cap. "I tried hard until the end, trying to finish the match as good as I can for the crowd, for the opponent, for me."
"It is true that I was not very lucky, and this is a tournament that is painful for me," Nadal said, repeating a sentiment that he first shared in his pre-tournament news conference two weeks earlier.
For Wawrinka, it was a "strange" way to win his first Grand Slam. "It's not the way a tennis player wants to win a match.".
"I was really sad for him. I really hope that it's not too bad," Wawrinka said about Nadal's injury. "He's someone that we need in tennis."