If history has any inclination to repeat itself, spectators will be in for a real treat when Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka meet in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Tuesday.
When the second-ranked Serb and eighth-ranked Swiss last met in Melbourne, they produced a five-hour marathon that turned out to be one of the matches of the year.
These two players know each other well. Djokovic has only faced the other members of the Big Four—Federer, Nadal and Murray—more times in his career.
But the rivalry remains decidedly one-sided: in 17 meetings between Djokovic and Wawrinka, the Serb owns 15 wins. And Djokovic has history on his side as he seeks his fourth consecutive Australian Open title.
Wawrinka looks to be in the best position of his career to notch his third win in their head-to-head record.
The big-hitting Swiss recorded a career year in 2013, recording his best ever results in the French Open (quarterfinals) and the US Open (semifinals) and logging nine wins over Top 10 players.
He entered the Australian Open with the highest ATP ranking of his career and one title already under his belt in 2014.
If Wawrinka had a full head of steam coming into the tournament, things have progressed just as well since play began in the grueling Melbourne heat.
Most importantly, Wawrinka will be fresh when he takes the court—just two of his four matches played to completion. Andrey Golubev retired two sets into the first round and his third-round opponent, Vasek Pospisil, never made it out to the court.
All in all, Wawrinka has played six hours and 15 minutes compared to seven hours and nine minutes for Djokovic. With temperatures hitting triple digits throughout the first week of the tournament, Wawrinka relayed to Micheal Chammas of the Sydney Morning Herald that he understands this point well enough:
“…I think it's better not spending too much time on the court than spending four hours every match,” Wawrinka said. “I don't think it's an advantage against him because he didn't spend so much time on the court. But for myself, it's good. It means I'm fit, I'm ready. I didn't spend too much energy the first few rounds. So, again, everything is great here. I'm just enjoying and trying to find a solution to beat him.”
So far, the Swiss has been playing to his strengths: serving and hitting big.
He has won 87 percent of his first-serve points, tied for the best mark of the tournament and well above his 2013 rate of 74 percent. Wawrinka has already recorded 29 aces in less than three full matches, compared to the 6.9 he averaged per match in 2013.
He’s already recorded 141 winners in his short time on court, whereas Djokovic has just 134 in four full—albeit straight-set—matches. This go-for-it playing style has a “live by the sword” quality to it, as Wawrinka also has more unforced errors (94) than his upcoming opponent (85).
If Wawrinka hopes to shake off the contender title and be regarded as a tournament favorite going forward, beating Djokovic in this quarterfinal matchup is the place to start. And to do that, he will need to play with the utmost confidence, keeping the Serb at bay with his powerful serve and huge groundstrokes.
“I have to be ready to play another 12-10 in the fifth like last year,” Djokovic said. “I know that he’s playing the tennis of his life in last 15 months. He’s top-10 player now. He’s established himself in the top level. He won against some top guys in the big tournaments. He is confident. You could feel that mentally when he comes to the court, he believes in himself more.”
Djokovic has the physical fitness and concentration to play defense for five hours, so Wawrinka needs to play both efficiently and boldly. The unforced errors will pile up, but as long as the number in the "winners" column grows faster, he has a puncher’s chance.