In his happy place: Why the normal rules don't apply to Stan Wawrinka
Tumaini Carayol looks at what makes Stan Wawrinka such a devastating talent, after his US Open final win over Novak Djokovic.
After Stan Wawrinka finished up business in his semi-final win against Kei Nishikori and took his first glance onwards towards the possibility of defeating an agonisingly fresh Novak Djokovic in the final, he managed to sum up his career and all the astonishing achievements over the past few years into one tidy sentence. “Hopefully I'm gonna be ready,” he said. “But normally I'm always ready when I'm happy on the court.”
For just about any other player in the world today, including those who have played more and won plenty more than Wawrinka, this wouldn’t really be an accurate reflection of how they achieve their success. Everyone plays the sport of tennis differently but the results of every player are bound by the same variables: the fact that there is always a player who can play even better than you, that results are so heavily reliant on head-to-head records and how certain players’ games match up with others, and the vital value of recent form.
The continuing lesson from Wawrinka’s remarkable third Grand Slam title, secured with a gruelling and dramatic 6-7 6-4 7-5 6-3 victory over Novak Djokovic, was that for him and only him, none of these variables matter. The Swiss arrived in New York off the back of an entirely forgettable year, his only slam highlight the result of an easy route through to the French Open semi-finals. Throughout the year, Wawrinka has cut an uninspiring figure, moping from tournament to tournament. His most recent defeat before the US Open was a sad straight-sets loss to the long forgotten Grigor Dimitrov.
After the US Open draw, Wawrinka seemed riper for an upset than any other top player in the field. He was handed a desperate walk to what appeared his certain demise, with Alex Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray all projected to face him in succession before the final. In the end, most of those dangerous floaters lost early but his early level was so up and down that he still found himself down a match point against Britain’s Dan Evans, a largely rancid performance saved by a searing backhand winner as he stood on the brink of defeat.
But form doesn’t matter for Wawrinka, because the potency of his weaponry is the only rule his game lives by. When Wawrinka kicks up into his familiar rhythm, punctuated by his delayed grunt and the crash of his strings destroying the ball, it’s hard to think of a single player in history who hits off both sides with such consistent weight and power. One of Novak Djokovic’s most important strengths is his ability to retain his court position against the very best offences; this allows him to run less, cut off angles and turn defence quickly into offence. But against Wawrinka, he can do no such thing. On Sunday, Djokovic spent such a startling amount of time defending alongside the linesmen.
The most striking aspect of Wawrinka’s victory over Djokovic, however, had little to do with his weapons. Unlike his startling and unplayable performance in the 2015 French Open final, Wawrinka had to roll up his sleeves and get dirty in the long, grinding rallies. Instead of prodding for a winner as early as possible, he found the balance between attack and defence. He would have fallen easily without countless gritty holds, saving 14 of the 17 break points Djokovic created.
Moreover, though the final will always be controversial for the medical timeout Djokovic took whilst down a break in the third set as his toenails bled, Wawrinka was long winning the physical battle against just about the fittest player in the history of the sport. When you consider that Wawrinka arrived in the final with 17 hours of tennis behind him while Djokovic’s walkover and retirement-strewn path left him fresh with only eight hours, it’s difficult to imagine any time in recent years where an opponent has handled the grind of an exhausting match better than Wawrinka on Sunday.
Wawrinka is the ultimate big-match player. With his victory over Djokovic, he moves to 3-0 in slam finals and he has won his last 12 finals in all competitions, also including the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 and the Davis Cup. The rivalry between Wawrinka and Djokovic remains a completely unique matchup and sums up his love for the big stage. Since Djokovic turned 20, Wawrinka is 3-18 against the world number one. In best-of-three sets the figure equates to 0-14, but in the most consequential and pressure-filled arena of all, Wawrinka has never won fewer than two sets against the dominant player of this generation. The pair now stand at 3-3 in recent best-of-five matches, with Wawrinka’s three defeats coming in a fifth set.
Throughout the week, Wawrinka has been mocked and laughed at for his now signature celebration. Regardless of whether he hits a winner or the opponent shanks a forehand into the stands, the Swiss celebrates by pointing to his head. He says it’s because he is fighting but his mind isn’t always clear. But Wawrinka knows more than anyone that when he is focused, the conventional variables which determine a match go out the window. With his weapons, his fitness and his love of the big stage, whenever he’s happy and ready, he is poised to beat every single tennis player on the planet.