Defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka will not win the 2016 French Open. Oh, there’s a chance that he wakes up, puts on a pair of those hideous plaid 2015 French Open shorts and goes on another magical streak to eventually upend superstar favorites Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Then again, the French could auction off the Mona Lisa and rent out Roland Garros to matadors and bulls.
Wawrinka has proven that he can win big matches, but he’s just as likely to flop the way that he did in the first round of the 2014 French Open.
There are more than a few problems in how Wawrinka is losing matches, but none bigger than his three-set collapse against aging Juan Monaco (ranked No. 114) in Rome’s round of 16, an effort that looked dispirited.
What’s wrong with Ironman Stan?
Success and Swoon
The Swiss seemed much happier a couple of years ago in his rise to becoming the 2014 Australian Open champion. He had broken through a second-tier career that had seemingly peaked just inside the top 20, and he famously stood up and defeated Djokovic and Nadal on Melbourne's biggest stage.
It was a win for blue-collar talent and for everyone that ever wanted to win by hitting as hard as he could on every shot.
But despite continued success with winning 2014 Monte Carlo, Wawrinka became more inconsistent as the year dragged on.
He struggled to play tennis in spring 2015 while his marriage was ending, and only by Rome had he picked up the pieces of his go-for-broke style of tennis. Weeks later, he completed his career masterpiece by upsetting Djokovic for the French Open title. Not even the Eiffel Tower stood as tall as Stan the Man.
His greatest triumph was not a relief. Months later, Wawrinka admitted to Simon Briggs in the Daily Telegraph that winning the French Open had left him drained. “The emotion in doing this is really up and down. Afterwards, you feel a little bit lonely, a bit of depression mentally. Because it’s so much stress and emotion, so many people around—and then it’s completely empty.”
It’s a clue into Wawrinka’s feast or famine tennis streaks. He is not cut out to set a standard for consistency in a sport that demands exactly that. He’s no Andy Murray, despite his bigger groundstrokes and that he has matched the Scot with two career majors.
There’s more to Wawrinka than risk-reward tennis, because deep within his rugged exterior is a man who still feels “empty” after a career-defining match. There’s a much greater price to pay for rising above the pressure to be excellent every week, something that fellow Swiss Roger Federer still embraces as much with his spirit as with his talent.
Wawrinka’s relationship with tennis has always been more rocky. It’s also been the key to how he challenges himself to rise up and find a new edge. It’s just not that easy to turn on, and right now he’s struggling big time.
Time Enough for Deja Vu?
In March, Wawrinka entered the Indian Wells round of 16 with a 15-2 record on the year, with titles at Chennai and Dubai. His game is suited to slow hard courts and clay, and he is dangerous when he has time to wind up and swing from the heels.
Then it all fell apart. Wawrinka has won only three of eight matches, including losses to contenders David Goffin, Nick Kyrgios and Rafael Nadal. The Nadal match in particular was a tough blow, and at one point Wawrinka snapped a racket over his knee. It was a symbolic gesture, and once again the Swiss looked unhappy with his tennis. Had his underdog mentality collapsed underneath the weight of his greater expectations?
Wawrinka has learned to live with big counts of winners and unforced errors, but his first serve against Monaco was only 48 percent. His strokes are impatient. Instead of using power to dent away progress in a rally, he often pulls the strings from bad angles. When he’s off, it’s ugly. He may as well dig out those pajama shorts. It would either match his game or rub off some of that old magic.
Maybe the solution is for Wawrinka to forget about his challenge in Paris and get back to playing each point like he’s hitting at a local club. Like pulling the tab off a can of soda, Wawrinka needs to release the pressure that has bubbled up in his game.
There are other motivated opponents who will nearly sell their souls to get this title, and if Wawrinka cannot summon up the desire to compete harder for every point, they will push right through him.
Djokovic craves the one missing piece to his epic career. Nadal is bidding for a 10th title like it’s his first. Murray is more consistent late in his career on clay. Dominic Thiem is a dangerous wild card. Even Kei Nishikori and David Goffin are fighting with everything their smaller frames can dish out.
Wawrinka is wandering, searching and hoping to find himself.
Few other tennis fans believe in Wawrinka. In a recent poll, Wawrinka scored less than one percent of the votes when readers were asked to select their pick to win the French Open.
It’s not too late for Wawrinka to win the French Open, there’s always a chance, but it’s looking bleak. Right now he's trending down, and that’s not going to get it done at Roland Garros.