MELBOURNE, Australia - At an Australian Open marked by upsets and new story lines, Rafael Nadal will play Sunday's final against a man often called the "other" Swiss tennis player.
Now, after a stunning run in Melbourne, Stanislas Wawrinka has a new nickname: The Stanimal — a tribute to his gritty, fight-until-the end style of tennis. Fittingly, perhaps, the name was apparently coined by none other than Roger Federer, in a tweet of support for his friend which quickly caught on earlier in the tournament.
Now that Federer is out of the running — he lost to Nadal in the semifinals — the 17-time Grand Slam winner and long-time ambassador for Swiss tennis has joined those cheering for Wawrinka to win his first Grand Slam final. It is a match that holds historical significance for all three players.
If the No. 1-ranked Nadal wins, as the odds suggest he will, the 27-year-old Spaniard will become the first player to win each of the majors twice in the Open era. It would be his 14th Grand Slam trophy and bring him one step closer to Federer's all-time record of 17.
If No. 8-ranked Wawrinka beats Nadal to win his first major title, he catapults to a career high of No. 3 in the rankings. Just reaching the final assures Wawrinka of the No. 5 spot, meaning for the first time he will pass Federer, who is now ranked sixth.
On the eve of the final, Wawrinka said he was still shocked by his success.
"It's insane. It's incredible," the 28-year-old Wawrinka said Saturday, speaking to reporters in English and in his native French. "I never imagined that one day I would be here, playing in the final."
After a breakthrough year in 2013, Wawrinka is playing the best tennis of his life in Melbourne. He knocked out three-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and beat No. 7 Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. He knows how tough it will be to beat Nadal — he's tried and failed 12 times.
"I've played him so many times, and lost so many times, but I'm going to try again," Wawrinka said. "I know what I have to do. I know that I have to play aggressive, serve really well, and try to always push him."
"I'm playing my best tennis here," Wawrinka added. "Physically, I'm ready.".
Nadal says he's ready, too, for a breakthrough at what he calls his unluckiest Grand Slam. Nadal won in Melbourne in 2009 but in subsequent years struggled with injuries during or before the season's first major. He missed the 2013 Australian Open during a seven-month layoff for illness and a knee injury. He returned to win the French and U.S. Open last year but reaching the final in Melbourne holds special significance.
"After missing last year for me it's really, really emotional to be back on this court, Rod Laver Arena, and to be able to play another final," said Nadal, who has known Wawrinka since they were teens, playing junior tournaments in Europe.
"He's a good friend, a great guy. I'm so happy for him that he's in the final. He deserves it," Nadal said. "I know it will be a very, very tough match."
Wawrinka's other longtime friend, Federer, had hoped Sunday's story would be about an all-Swiss final. But after losing the latest installment of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, he's cheering for Wawrinka.
"I hope he wins, and I hope he gives everything he has," Federer said. "There's no reason not believe that he can beat Rafa."
"Stan's in his first Grand Slam final, so that makes Stan also unpredictable. He's got to use that to his advantage."