How Late Bloomer Stan Wawrinka Redefined His Career

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2016

With his first U.S. Open title, Wawrinka further established his place among the game's elite.
With his first U.S. Open title, Wawrinka further established his place among the game's elite.Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The words were inked on his left arm three years ago. Now they're embedded in his DNA.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For Stan Wawrinka, 31, that famous line by poet Samuel Beckett is more than a source of inspiration: It’s his modus operandi.

Once an afterthought, the talented-but-underachieving Swiss has transformed into one of, if not the best big-match player in men’s tennis. 

At the 2016 U.S. Open, Wawrinka's renaissance hit another peak, as he defeated defending champion Novak Djokovic 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 for his third Grand Slam title. Under the bright lights and new roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium, he wore down a weary-looking Djokovic, who couldn't equal the mental fortitude and toughness of Wawrinka.

A player considered too soft and unfocused early in his career, Wawrinka's mastered the art of resiliency the past few seasons. Nowhere was this trait more evident than in New York, where he recently defied the odds to lift the U.S. Open trophy over his head. 

So special to add a new 🏆 !!! @usopen #newyork #trophy #stanimal 🤔🙄😱😰😪🏃🏻👊🏻💪🏻👉🏻😏🏆🎊🎉🍺🍾🍾🍾🍾🐻🐼😘❤️ pic.twitter.com/xKHTt0I11Z

Stanislas Wawrinka (@stanwawrinka) September 13, 2016

Wawrinka entered the tournament with little momentum. Because of a second-round loss at Wimbledon to Juan Martin del Potro and a back injury that forced him to skip the Olympics, he had played only nine matches since the end of the French Open in June, winning just five of them. An early loss at the Western & Southern Open, the last tune-up event before the U.S. Open, sent another ominous sign.

In the midst of a summer swoon, Wawrinka landed in a tough section of the draw that nearly sunk him. But no matter who stood in his way, he cleared every obstacle.

Saving match point in the fourth set of his third-round match against Daniel Evans, Wawrinka escaped from the brink of an upset. He could've been on a flight home. Instead, that inspiring win imbued him with new life. 

He only grew in strength from there, taking out the equally powerful Del Potro in the quarterfinals and notching his first top-10 victory of the season by outclassing Kei Nishikori in the semifinals. 

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland reacts against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during their Men's Singles Final Match on Day Fourteen of the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 11, 2016 in the
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Nervous and crying before facing Djokovic in the final, his night ended with different kinds of tears.

Falling behind 5-2 in the opening set, Wawrinka clawed back to force a tiebreaker. He'd lose it, but that only seemed to motivate him more and awake his unshakeable fighting spirit.

As he tweaked his tactics and started playing more fearlessly, Wawrinka made sure the match would be played on his terms. Djokovic didn't have an answer, especially in crucial moments.

While Wawrinka converted six of his 10 break points, he also saved 14 of the 17 Djokovic generated on his serve. Against the sport's greatest returner and hard-court player, Wawrinka wasn't fazed, believing in himself to weather the storm.

Mental strength is the reason why he won this title, as the New York Times' Christopher Clarey noted:

But down the stretch in New York this year, he was comparatively self-contained. Yes, he bellowed after big points, but in general, he channeled his energy into the essential: pointing repeatedly to his temple as he took out three very dangerous opponents in a row by chasing down tennis balls and then pummeling them, although crucially not always pummeling them.

The lasting image of the U.S. Open final is Wawrinka pointing to his head whenever he averted trouble. A recognition of the progress he's made the last few years, that gesture is also a tribute to the man who helped him turn things around, his coach, Magnus Norman.

A former world No. 2, Norman joined the camp in April 2013 after several seasons working with Robin Soderling, whom he guided to the 2009 and 2010 French Open finals. His hiring proved instrumental to the success Wawrinka is enjoying.

Prior to their partnership, Wawrinka carried a reputation as an underachiever. In eight full seasons as a pro, his best Grand Slam results were quarterfinal appearances at the 2010 U.S. Open and the 2011 Australian Open. The Swiss only had three titles to his name, all at small events. He was forever in the shadow of friend and compatriot Roger Federer.

A turning point came at the 2013 Australian Open. Though Djokovic beat him 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 12-10 in an epic fourth-round battle, that effort hinted at the talent brewing inside Wawrinka, waiting to be unleashed. 

"I think it's by far the best match I've ever played, especially in five sets against the number one player," Wawrinka told BBC Sport's Piers Newbery. "At the end I was really, really close. For sure I'm really sad. It's a big disappointment to lose that match, but I think there are more positives than negatives."

Wawrinka and Djokovic embrace after their fourth-round match at the 2013 Australian Open.
Wawrinka and Djokovic embrace after their fourth-round match at the 2013 Australian Open.Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

Norman used those positives as a launch point. From the start, he worked to instill more structure into Wawrinka's game and improve his forehand while also focusing on the psychological side, per Clarey.

Ever the temperamental player, Wawrinka learned how to better channel his emotions on the court. With Norman's calming presence, he doesn't get as distraught over losses or overplay the point during pressure situations.

That shift in attitude led Wawrinka to a breakout 2013 season, which culminated in a 51-23 record and his first trip to the World Tour Finals. Finishing as the year at No. 8, Wawrinka parlayed that momentum at the 2014 Australian Open.

All the strides he made with Norman in the previous year came to fruition in Melbourne. After defeating Djokovic in a five-set quarterfinal classic—his biggest win at that point—Wawrinka denied an injured Rafael Nadal in the final for his first maiden Grand Slam title.

"Someone gave me a diamond, was a little bit unpolished," Norman told the Wall Street Journal's Tom Perrotta. 

If that's true, then Norman certainly turned out to be the right person to let Wawrinka shine.

His past weaknesses with the mental side of the game are overwhelming strengths. Though he's far from immune to spells of inconsistency, the way he can shrug them off when it matters most is something that sets him apart from his peers.

Wawrinka is truly afraid of no other opponent. That wasn't always case, but the confidence he's gained with Norman by his side is immeasurable.

Norman is a huge component of Wawrinka's improvement in recent years.
Norman is a huge component of Wawrinka's improvement in recent years.Pool/Getty Images

In the 2015 French Open final, Wawrinka faced a hungry and heavily favored Djokovic, who was searching for his first title in Paris. Despite losing the first set, he flipped the script and won in four sets, bullying Djokovic off the court with his bruising baseline power.

"That's the way I have to play if I want to beat him," Wawrinka told reporters. "I'm still surprised the way I played, because I think I played amazing today. I was really nervous, but I didn't really choke. I was always going for my shot, always going for the right play."

Sound familiar? Wawrinka made Djokovic experience deja vu in New York, winning this year's U.S. Open final in an eerily similar fashion. Through superior wit and courage, he again stifled Djokovic on a big stage.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland celebrates with the trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic of Serbia with a score of 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 during their Men's Singles Final Match on Day Fourteen of the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie
Elsa/Getty Images

Not only did Wawrinka improve to 3-0 in major finals, he became just the fifth man to win multiple Grand Slams after the age of 30, a feat not even Federer has accomplished.

Remarkably, he's 11-0 in his last 11 finals appearances, dating back to the start of 2014. Reaching those stages on a consistent basis is never assured with a player as streaky as Wawrinka, but when he gets there, he's a textbook example of the word "clutch."

The highs he's experienced with Norman embolden him in those pressure-packed situations. Where the younger Wawrinka would've crumbled, this tougher version thrives with his back pressed to the wall. He's able to play freely thanks to a more refined game and a steadier emotional approach.

To Wawrinka, the formula for success is quite simple.

“I’ve always gone step by step," Wawrinka told the ATP World Tour's official website. "First I wanted to be a professional tennis player. Then it was to be Top 100, then Top 50. I never started with the idea to be No. 1 or to win Grand Slams. The only thing I want to do is to push my limits, to have no regrets.”

Evolving into one of the sport's top champions, Wawrinka won't have much to regret when he hangs up his racket.

       

All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.

Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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