Tennis: Rafa slam attempt fails as injury jinx strikes again
All the air went out of the Rafa Slam on the Rod Laver Arena, and a little escaped from the Australian Open balloon too, on the evening when an injured, emotional Rafael Nadal spent the changeovers staring at the floor.
Nadal's attempt to go around the grand slam block, to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors simultaneously, ended with a straight-sets defeat in the quarter-finals, so it will be another Spaniard, David Ferrer, who will play Andy Murray tomorrow for a place in the Melbourne final.
Nadal would be forgiven for developing a phobia of anyone smeared in green and gold zinc cream and singing Waltzing Matilda.
For the second year running he suffered quarter-final defeat on Australia's national day, when his body failed him as the Melbourne sky filled with the yellows, reds, blues and greens of the firework displays across the city.
A year after his defeat to Murray, when he was in so much pain from his knee that he did not complete the match, Majorca's world No 1 damaged his hamstring early on against Ferrer.
"It was a difficult day for me," Nadal said after Ferrer's 6-4 6-2 6-3 victory, and there may well have been some tears when he reached the locker-room.
Nadal's eyebrows are the most expressive in tennis, and as he looked over at his guest box in the opening stages, they started arching and jumping towards his hairline, giving the first indication that something was amiss.
The eyebrows did not lie, as after only three games, Nadal walked down the tunnel and did not reappear for several minutes as he took a medical time-out. Though there was never any official confirmation of what the injury was, it was clear on resumption that he could not compete with his usual intensity, that much of the life-force had been taken from him.
Nadal plays such physical tennis, yet, once again on Australia Day, it was not the real Rafa. In Nadal's mind, this was over as a contest within minutes, yet he played this out to its conclusion because he hated retiring against Murray and could not bear to do it again.
This cannot have been easy for Ferrer, a player known for his consistency of shot and for running everything down and making his opponent play one more ball. He looked a little shaky when closing out the first set.
If Nadal had left Melbourne as the champion, it would have been the greatest achievement by a male tennis player in history, above even Don Budge doing the original grand slam in 1938 or when Laver won all four majors in 1962 and again in 1969.
But, with rockets going off across the city, Nadal came crashing back down to earth, his undefeated sequence at the slams was stopped at 25. Nadal had won seven matches on the clay of Roland Garros, seven on the lawns at the All England Club, and seven on the Flushing Meadows cement, as well as his first four appearances on the hard surface at Melbourne Park. And now he goes back to zero.
This might just be the closest that Nadal will ever get to being the champion of Melbourne, Paris, London and New York at the same time. Twice Federer came within three sets of holding all four slams simultaneously, at the 2006 and 2007 French Opens, but on both occasions he lost to Nadal.
Nadal's injury shows that you need some luck, as well as talent, to go through the card. There had been something disconcerting about Nadal's excessive sweating during his third-round match last Saturday evening against Australia's Bernard Tomic, yet the reason he lost to Ferrer had nothing do with the lingering effects of the flu-like virus he picked up this month while playing in Abu Dhabi and Doha.
When Nadal returned from that long time-out, he was plainly not moving as normal, and having reached the quarter-finals without dropping a set, he lost the opening stanza against Ferrer.
Just as there had been during Nadal's defeat to Murray, there was a 10-minute interruption to this match because of the fireworks, and Nadal took the opportunity to leave the court, perhaps for more repairs.
Though there was still the occasional decent shot from Nadal, though this was not completely one-sided, it was just a matter of waiting for Ferrer's victory.
It was good of Nadal to keep on playing, not to quit. This was an unfortunate end to his attempt to achieve the Rafa Slam, but it was also a dignified one. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Australian Open, Europsport 8.0am