As a long-time fan of Roger Federer, I had been rooting for him to win the French Open. With a favorable draw, in which Djokovic, Nadal and Murray were all in the other half, I thought that this was his best chance to win one more Grand Slam. I was shocked when he went out in the quarter-finals, losing to his countryman Stan Wawrinka in straight sets. I imputed it to Federer’s decline rather than to Wawrinka’s good play. When Wawrinka beat Tsonga in the semis and advanced to the finals against Djokovic, I still did not give him any chance of winning the final. After all, Novak has been pretty dominant over the past couple of years.
By the merest chance, I happened to tune in when the third set was in progress and what I saw amazed me. Wawrinka was going for his shots, hitting the lines and running down everything Djokovic was throwing at him. The winners were flowing from his racket, particularly from the backhand side. His first serve was clicking and he was hitting with power and accuracy, jerking Djokovic from side to side before blasting a winner. It was he was dictating terms, he who was the aggressor. There was one game in the middle of the third set, when he broke Djokvic at love, that was simply remarkable for the quality of his stroke-play. Djokovic went ahead at the beginning of the fourth set in a last gasp effort but Wawrinka fought back and closed out the match, a deserving winner.
Wawrinka’s success has been nothing short of remarkable. Elite tennis players usually make their mark in their late teens or early twenties; Federer, Nadal, Murray, Sampras, McEnroe, Borg and Connors are some names that come to mind. By contrast, Wawrinka won his first grand Slam ( the 2014 Australian Open) at the ripe age of 28 and his win at the French Open came at the age of thirty. This was after a dozen years on the circuit and at an age when most players have plateaued or are beginning to show signs of decline. It is particularly noteworthy because Wawrinka, over his entire career, has played second fiddle to Roger Federer as his doubles partner and Davis Cup teammate. Practicing daily with Fed and losing to him regularly in tournaments must have severely affected his self-belief. Credit for his resurgence must go to his resilience and hard work but also to his coach, Magnus Norman, who seems to have done wonders for his confidence. It underscores the importance of the mental aspect of the game.
Tennis fans everywhere must be pleased with Wawrinka’s success. With Federer nearing the end of his remarkable career and Nadal fighting both injuries and age, Djokovic has had no real competition other than Andy Murray. Berdych, Cilic, Raonic and Dimitrov may pull off the odd upset but they are not capable of the sustained run of form that results in a Grand Slam win. Nishikori tries hard but does not have game to challenge the big boys. Tsonga seems to have plateaued and at age 30 does not have many years ahead of him and Del Potro, once so promising, has fallen off the map. Perhaps Wawrinka, if he can overcome his inconsistency, can hang with Djokovic and Murray and give us some exciting matches.
Wawrinka does not look like a tennis player. He is not long and lean like Djokovic or Murray; not is he musclebound like Nadal. His stocky frame belies the fact that he is six feet tall. He is not as smooth as Federer- no one is- but he covers the court well and has the full assortment of strokes. On his day, he is as good as anyone and a pleasure to watch. However I do wish he would take a little more care about his appearance. His clothes have been the focus of many comments ranging from pained to derisive and his scruffy, unshaven look could stand improvement. I have never understood how athletes who know they will be appearing on TV worldwide do not take more care how they look. Stan’s rumpled appearance makes it seem as if he has just been woken from a deep sleep, thrown on whatever clothes were on hand and rushed to the tennis court. Ah, well. We have to take him as he is. His tennis at least is beyond reproach.