He battled Novak Djokovic in two very memorable matches in 2013, but can Stanislas Wawrinka defeat the elite players for a Grand Slam title in 2014?
It’s a lot to ask for Switzerland’s overshadowed second son. The 28-year-old is now playing the best tennis of his life after straddling the region between being a journeyman or a secondary star. He has the hunger to succeed and a boost of confidence after a year of modest improvement.
Opening Sets to the Brawl Down Under
The fourth round of the 2013 Australian Open did not figure to be a competitive match, but there was Wawrinka teeing off on Djokovic’s conservative approach in the first set. On this day, Wawrinka was taking the initiative by turning his hips with extra torque to produce his hummingbird topspin—the way it darts up and over the net with added margin and power. He hits a heavy ball if not so powerful.
There’s nothing slight about Warkinka’s groundstrokes or body. He is rugged and thick for a tennis player and his large arms and legs have a wrestler’s kind of strength. Given time to set his feet, Wawrinka was turning on shots with brilliant disguise and sending them through the court.
He broke Djokovic three times for an easy 6-1 first set victory, masquerading as his more famous countryman, Roger Federer, at least in terms of tennis aggression and initiative.
Wawrinka is no stranger to Federer comparisons, but on this day he was showing his unique way of winning tennis. He was dealing some nasty, hard single backhand ropes up the line and crosscourt. At times the ball boys and girls probably had to check the tennis balls to see if the yellow fuzz had been singed off.
Suddenly Djokovic, the world No. 1, found himself down in the second set 5-2, and realized he would need near-perfect tennis to get back into the match. He found the zone and reeled off the next five games to level the match.
The war was on.
Intermission: The Rafa and Nole Problem
Wawrinka has traditionally been a better player on clay (66 percent win percentage) than hard courts (59 percent), including three of his four career titles. But, like almost all of the ATP tour, he had a real problem trying to beat the elite players.
There was his 1-13 head-to-head record versus Federer, but naturally his friend and compatriot was going to bring extra energy to emphasize the disparity in Switzerland’s top players.
There was also the 0-12 record against Rafael Nadal. There is the ugly steak of losing all 26 sets to the Spanish star, including all six tiebreakers. How much of being a doormat is mental?
There’s also the match up problem with his wonderful backhand. It doesn't pick up the ball quite as early as the Djokovic backhand, nor does it find as many impossible angles. It feeds right into Nadal’s forehand and the Spanish star bulls his way around the court while often forcing Wawrinka to run.
Then there’s the matter of the 2-17 record against Djokovic. For all of the talk about 2013 being a leap forward, Wawrinka was still 0-4 against both Djokovic and Nadal. Ouch.
Any talk of Wawrinka challenging the top players will only be relevant once he bites into his huge losses deficit against the Big Three.
There are a few things he must do to get over the hump.
Back to the 5th Set
Wawrinka recaptured his momentum by taking a tough fourth set tiebreaker. Then he and Djokovic battled in perhaps the ATP’s greatest set of the year.
The greater difficulty in this particular matchup for Wawrinka is Djokovic’s superior defense. The Serbian’s speedy footwork can retrieve enough extra shots to pick up crucial points. It has the rejuvenating effect of giving him the chance to tap his heart or turn to his box when he steals a point. It can demoralize players like Wawrinka after they've put all their muscle into a shot. It can sap their resolve and their strength to try again.
But Wawrinka was not backing down, not on this day. He crushed line beaters and crosscourt lasers as if he was worthy of battling in a Grand Slam final. It was a combination of beautiful power and newfound composure. He belonged in this match.
Back and forth they went, holding serve and digging in for memorable shots. Djokovic was forced to dig into his deepest reserve of spectacular play including numerous times of slide-stepping to bunt back Wawrinka’s tenacious shots. The Serbian would not be denied.
Finally, Wawrinka fell in the 22nd game, but not before saving two matchpoints and battling in a third and final matchpoint, falling only on an amazing defensive to offensive twisting backhand net pass by the champion. Djokovic immediately reacted by throwing his arms straight in the air.
The final line might have been the match of the year for tennis fans: 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 12-10.
See the following three-minute highlight clip for a reminder of the energy at Melbourne. There are also other 17-20 minute highlight packages available on YouTube.
Ready to Defeat Nadal and Djokovic?
For Wawrinka, it was not a case of losing the Aussie match but not having enough to win it. This was likewise the case in his five-set U.S. Open semifinal defeat to Djokovic that was less of an encore but more of a missed opportunity to close a match that was ripe for the taking.
The indoor season saw him finish with his career-best No. 8 ranking and make it to the semifinals of the WTF tournament in London.
Going forward, Wawrinka has gained a greater sense of confidence. He was recently featured on a video interview on ATPworld.com in which he acknowledged the confidence he gained from the Australian Open battle versus Djokovic:
(The Aussie Match)…was something different for me after that match, mentally. I realized that I was there, my level was there, and that I can play against the best player in the world, and after that I had some—much better results.
He will also have the added benefit of a higher seed to help him gain easier matches in the early rounds of tournaments and set him up for deeper title bids.
There is more work to do if he hopes to compete for a Grand Slam title. Can he continue to serve better and finish off easier points? His offensive aggression will remain the key unless he can inexplicably find another gear with his quickness and defense. Perhaps more speedwork and conditioning can help close the gap that separates him from tennis’ big guns.
But the word is out on Stan the Man. He has placed himself at the doorstep of Grand Slam contention and would like nothing more than to crash the party.
Can 2014 see him pull off one Grand Slam final appearance and a special title run? Tennis fans might see this Swiss version compete for his own big crown.