The rise of Stanislas Wawrinka has the tennis world buzzing about his chances for the 2014 French Open title. He won the 2014 Australian Open and Monte Carlo Masters, and he loves to play on clay. He is also coached by one-time tennis star Magnus Norman, who knows a thing or two about winning at the French Open.
The fruits to Coach Norman's current coaching success with Wawrinka are rooted far deeper than their partnership the past year. As a player, Norman battled adversity and had a brief taste at the top. He has unique appreciation for the hard road to success.
With all of the ballyhooed coaching names that have seemingly formed an entourage around some of the ATP's top stars, Norman might be the most important and underrated force for change on the tennis scene.
French Open 2000
Norman was on the rise during the 2000 clay-court season. He had already been a semifinalist at the Australian Open, but his game was most suited for clay. He had a feisty patience about him, as if he relished the frustration that clay could have on most other players. His strokes looked like they came from a textbook, and despite his stiff way of serving, he was very solid with his movement.
He was the fittest player on tour, a Jim Courier clone who would often run twice a day, practice twice and still find time to hit the gym. And he was very confident. He had defeated reigning clay king Gustavo Kuerten for the Rome Masters title, and he was not the least intimidated in trying to grab the French Open title and No. 1 ranking.
More casual tennis fans were still getting to know Norman, who had been relegated to the outer courts to begin the 2000 French Open. Norman voiced his displeasure about it. Some of us wondered, who is this cocky player? How dare he challenge the establishment and Guga?
He ripped through several good clay-court players and destroyed 1999 finalist Andrei Medvedev in the semifinals. But he was outclassed by Kuerten in the French Open final's first two sets as girlfriend-at-the-time Martina Hingis glumly looked on. Yet, he charged back to win the third set and narrowly lost the fourth set tiebreaker for a line of 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(8). He would achieve his career-best No. 2 ranking.
It seemed like Norman could be a Grand Slam contender for at least a few years, but he was racked by injuries and forced to retire by 2004. Too bad that he could not challenge the tour for a few more years, while it was in flux with no dominant superstars. He had crushed Lleyton Hewitt at Australia and Rome. He was mentally tougher than Marat Safin. He would have loved warring for the No. 1 ranking, but it was not to be.
Along the way, he trained and hit with fellow Swede Thomas Johansson, no doubt assisting Johansson's surprise 2002 Australian Open title.
Norman clearly understood how to win championships, and how to play with confidence. His own body was breaking down, but he was already helping others to acquire the toughness and confidence to win big. Norman's principles, as outlined on The Tennis Space, are linked heavily to these traits. For instance: "Appreciate that, at a high level, confidence is everything. 'The mental aspect on the practice court is vital for player development.'”
In 2009, Norman arrived at the French Open with talented but erratic Robin Soderling, a player known more for his indoors tennis potential than for anything he was expected to accomplish on clay. After all, Soderling had been humiliated by clay king Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-0 in the third round at Rome.
But Soderling shocked the world, drilling Nadal in four sets behind booming groundstrokes and an aggressive mentality that had Norman's name written all over it. For his part, Norman watched grimly from the sidelines as if he wished he could be the one out there fighting. Soderling's victory is still the only defeat Nadal has suffered at Roland Garros in 60 matches.
Soderling went on to the finals at the French Open in 2009 and 2010, losing to Roger Federer and Nadal. He achieved a career-best ranking of No. 4, and he was a top-10 force before illness and injuries cut him down in 2011.
The Wawrinka Effect
In 2013, Wawrinka lost an epic fourth-round match to eventual champion, Novak Djokovic. He had proven he could outhit the best player on the planet, but it was not enough.
Maybe Wawrinka hungered for that extra edge and guidance to start beating the elite. He hooked up with Norman in April saying in Tennis.com, "I have been eager to work with Magnus for many years now and I'm very excited to finally have that opportunity."
Wawrinka crashed the U.S. Open semifinals and nearly defeated Djokovic again, but he fell in a five-setter. He made it to the WTF semifinals in London, winning two matches and pushing Nadal in two tiebreakers. There was only one more thing to accomplish. Win a huge tournament.
Before he played his Australian Open final versus Nadal, Wawrinka credited Norman's influence, according to Sportal: "I have more confidence in myself. I know that when I go on court I can beat almost everybody, even on the big stage."
Perhaps the most symbolic moment of the final came when he was up one set and one break. Opponent Nadal had just gone off to the locker room for a medical timeout and treatment. Wawrinka nearly blew a gasket. He demanded answers and fought to keep his head in the game and a chip on his shoulder.
Would he have done this a year ago? With Norman, the instinct is to keep fighting, and Wawrinka proved his toughness then and there, even as the momentum of his great start was interrupted, and he had to struggle in putting away a wounded Nadal. But the trophy was 100 percent his own.
Wawrinka also found out what it's like to be the hunted. He struggled with the sudden fame and expectations of challenging the best. The pressure is never easy, and he had to navigate a mini-swoon in March to early April, ousted early at Indian Wells and Miami, and just barely holding his end of the bargain in Davis Cup play.
Wawrinka is best when he slugs away with his fearless attitude and fearsome strokes. His forehand is under control, and his backhand can wind up and rip with line-drive power across the court or up the line. It doesn't break down. In the Monte Carlo Masters final versus Federer, it was stronger and more lethal in the final set. Once he hit the zone, the match was over.
The comments he made to Sportal have proved prophetic:
It's a lot about confidence, especially with my game that I'm playing quite fast from the baseline, trying to always be aggressive. I take a lot of risks sometimes, so it's important to be really fresh and relaxed in my head.
Now the very heart of the clay-court season will feature three big opportunities at Madrid, Rome and Paris. Wawrinka now has a confident resume in tow, a hunger for more trophies and the tough, unrelenting nature of his biggest supporter, Coach Norman.
They are not coming to bask in the Spanish sun, tour the Colosseum and dine at L'Arpege in Paris. They will bring their underdog mentality and blue-collar approach to win tennis matches.
It's nearly time for the French Open, a time that Norman well understands from his past. He knows that these opportunities may not come again for Wawrinka, and he will prepare him for the grind and adversity ahead.
Play with confidence and prepare for war. The Norman-Wawrinka connection may be the team most prepared to do exactly that. If so, the winning and titles could keep coming.