When Stanislas Wawrinka takes on Tomas Berdych in the semifinals of the 2014 Australian Open, expect the crowd to be clearly on his side.
Wawrinka defeated Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. It was an epic win for him and an emotional triumph for viewers. Because unless you were a die-hard Djokovic fan, you were probably rooting for Wawrinka, the perpetual underdog.
That's one of the reasons we root for Wawrinka; another reason is that we empathize with him. We identify with the "If at first you don't succeed, try again" mentality. But how many well-played five-setters could he lose?
We wanted so badly for him to finally win one. Even those who delight in the antics of the Road Runner, deep down long for Wile E. Coyote to have his day.
After losing 14 straight to his nemesis and playing the role of perennial also-ran, Wawrinka finally solved the Djokovic problem. With his win, he also lifted fans from the frustrating feeling of watching him as a lovable loser.
In his post-match interview, Wawrinka spoke to reporters about going into the match confident, despite having such a losing steak against Djokovic. "I came on the court tonight with a lot of confidence on myself, knowing that if I play my best game, I always have a chance against him."
He also talked about how difficult it is playing in an era with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. "It's never easy. I have so many loss against them, it's always a tough challenge to play them."
Stan the Man, he's often called. But it's hard for a man to stand out in a crowd of superstars. That's another reason we root for Wawrinka. He's like the swell guy trying to work his way into the cool clique.
Wawrinka is so entrenched as an also-ran that he tattooed an ode to his arduous struggle on his left forearm. The tattoo, in old English-style lettering, is from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and reads: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better."
It's there as a reminder of his failures and as inspiration to press on. In embracing his underdog status Wawrinka has endeared himself to many fans.
There are other players on tour, like David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Berdych, who routinely fall to one of the the Big Four. However, Ferrer lacks the heavy artillery, Tsonga often lays an egg and Berdych is the anti-Stan.
What also makes Wawrinka a fan favorite is that he does not tank in his matches. He does not back down. Instead, he forces opponents to raise their game.
Unlike the lopsided rivalry between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, Wawrinka's tussles with Djokovic have been classics—including two five-set epics against the Serbian in 2013. But the results, until now, had been the same. He would put up a great fight and fail.
Wawrinka has spent his entire career trying to shake that good, but not good enough tag. It had become second nature for a guy who arrived on the scene to play in the shadow of fellow Swiss, Federer. Only in the last three years, as Federer's game declined, has Wawrinka forged to the forefront. He's done so with incredible humility and grace.
Genuine in victory, as well as defeat, Wawrinka wears his disappointment on his sleeve.
Last year, at the U.S. Open, Wawrinka talked with ESPN about life on tour with the Big Four.
In tennis, as you know, if [you] are not Roger [Federer] or Rafa [Nadal] and [Novak] Djokovic or Andy [Murray] now, you don't win so many tournaments and you always lose...But you need to take the positive of the loss, and you need to go back to work and still [keep] playing.
So that's what he did. Wawrinka kept plowing away. Even after failure and more failure, he failed again. He tried again. He failed better until he finally succeeded.
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