Stanislas Wawrinka Still a Puzzle After Upset Loss in 2014 French Open

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2014

Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka reacts as he plays Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez during their first round match of  the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, Monday, May 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Michel Euler/Associated Press

Stanislas Wawrinka’s bid for the 2014 French Open title was over just as it began. In a year of surprises on the ATP tour, he has now been the biggest and most disappointing. His Australian Open triumph to defeat Rafael Nadal was his career’s defining moment. His French Open disaster to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez might be his lowest.

The intervening action has also featured up-and-down results. He played poorly at Indian Wells and Miami, but he was the conqueror of Monte Carlo. He gained his press for Madrid and Rome, but he was unceremoniously bounced from each stage.

It would be easy to identify Wawrinka as either hot or cold, champion or non-factor. But there is something deeper and more puzzling about this loss, something that he is even trying to identify. He said as much, per ESPN:

I think it's just a different story. Now it's a different picture for my career. I need to put the puzzle back together, but differently than in the past, because now it's, after winning Grand Slam, Masters 1000, being No. 3 in the world, everything is different, and I still didn't find all the pieces.

The pieces are important, but what kind of puzzle is he? Is he a flash in the pan? Is he legitimate but inconsistent? Who has Wawrinka become?


Solving a Championship

Wawrinka’s steadiness and persistence were essential ingredients in his rise to the Australian Open title. He ascended in 2013 as the co-star to a double feature of Novak Djokovic five-set thrillers (Australian Open fourth round and U.S. Open semifinals), and tennis fans saw his bolder play morph into his new identity.

He had become dangerous by hitting thunderous one-handed line drives. He had harnessed his forehand. His conditioning and mental belief have become as hard as his resolve.

Ironman Stan had become the blue-collar everyman hero all tennis fans could root for.

His Australian Open title was a wonderful story for Wawrinka and for tennis. It signalled that the stars could be shifting ever so slightly in the universe of Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Wawrinka had earned his press everywhere. He was the rugged poster child of hard work, an omen of hope and proof to second-tier competitors that championships were possible. The hype was fully deserved, even if the results that followed were uneven.


Scattered Pieces

Wawrinka reached the top by playing aggressively. His attitude was fearless, and so his game had to continue with boldness. But curiously, his tennis approach became a conundrum.

If he became too conservative, he would fade back into the past. If he kept pushing harder, he would self-destruct. He had to stretch beyond stagnant order but not so erratically. He was living on the edge of chaos, and it was proving to be a very thin line.

Wawrinka has been pressing too hard. He coughed up 70 unforced errors in only four sets in April’s opening Davis Cup match versus No. 64 Andrey Golubev. He was still far too error-prone with 40 unforced errors in his Rome defeat to Tommy Haas. But at the French Open, Wawrinka unraveled with 62 unforced errors.

Michel Euler/Associated Press

It’s surprising, but the evidence is there. To borrow a baseball comparison, Wawrinka has transitioned from being a productive singles hitter to becoming a home run star. But many of his attempts to knock the cover off the ball are striking out.

The pressure of being the ATP World No. 3 has taken its toll. There have been more interviews, greater acclaim and the need to prove that he can beat the best and be the best.

This is a new role, but it's not an easy script to follow. In March, at Indian Wells, Wawrinka admitted this was a new kind of pressure, according to an interview he gave to USA Today Sports, per Douglas Robson:

It took me a lot of energy after the Australian Open to realize what really happened, for sure. For the first time I was a little bit scared not to play good and not to be ready for the tournament.

At last Friday’s news conferences in Paris, Wawrinka declared himself “one of the favorites.” Now he has just as quickly removed himself from top-notch contention. By Wimbledon, he will be demoted to “dark horse,” and then he must search for more hidden pieces on the North American hard-court tour.

What will Wawrinka’s reconstructed career picture look like in the months ahead?