Stan Wawrinka’s got the Indian Sign on Novak Djokovic. He must be the only tennis player who loves seeing Djokovic staring down at him on the other side of the net. Novak is his lucky charm. A year ago, he famously destroyed Novak’s dreams of winning a career Grand Slam in the French Open final. The previous year, he had defeated Novak in an epic 5 set quarter-final duel on his way to winning his first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, at the grand old age of 28. On Sunday, he did it again. He beat Djokovic in four sets to become the oldest man to win the US Open since Ken Roswell in 1970.
Stan the Man is now 3 out of 3 in Grand Slam finals. That is some hit rate. Especially, for someone who didn’t start winning Slams till he was nearly 29. Wawrinka plays with the urgency of someone who’s taken a very long time to meet his destiny and who knows his time at the top is short. Roger Federer casts a long shadow and for years Stan struggled to blossom in his illustrious teammate’s wake.
Stan has done in two years what Andy Murray toiled to accomplish in nearly a decade of trying. Stan Wawrinka is the antithesis of Andy Murray. Where the Scot is cautious, the Swiss throws caution to the wind. Where the Scot pats a shot back and hopes for an error, the Swiss smashes a shot for a winner. Stan’s exceptional hit rate is a testament to his high risk high reward style of play. And that backhand. A gloriously old fashioned, rip roaring, single handed bullet down the line. Not as elegant as Frenchman Richard Gasquet’s graceful offering perhaps, but far more powerful and effective – it knocks holes through opponents.
How Novak must have cursed Britain’s Dan Evans for not taking that match point against Wawrinka in their third round encounter. Unusually, it was a forehand volley that had saved Stan that day. How many times does it happen in sport where a team or individual are on the verge of going out and then promptly end up winning the whole thing? The moment he came back to beat Dan Evans, Stan’s name was on the trophy.
From then on, he made his way comfortably to the final. Even though he had played twice as much tennis as Djokovic, whose own path to the final was rather surreal, with one opponent pulling out and two others retiring with injury mid match during the early rounds, the doubts concerned Djokovic’s fitness. Although Djokovic won the opening set of the final, there was a feeling Wawrinka was just warming up. After all, Wawrinka had dropped the opening set in both their previous two Grand Slam encounters, as well as during his quarter final and semi final matches. Stan didn’t do opening sets. They were just a warm up for the main action to come.
Once he had stared unleashing his groundstrokes, the winners flowed. As usual, Wawrinka didn’t hold back. The single backhand down the line money shot was motoring, the equally powerful bone crunching forehand was pushing Novak out of court, and crucially, he was bamboozling Djokovic, the best returner of serve in the game, with body serves and kickers. Stan’s tennis is not subtle; it’s not pretty or delicate. It’s not tennis for the purists, it’s tennis for adrenaline junkies. If Novak thought that the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium meant he was protected against the elements, he was mistaken. Stan Wawrinka was a one man tornado blowing and battering Djokovic into submission. Novak’s powers of retrieval are legendary, but the tennis equivalent of The Road Runner had no answer to the sheer force of Wawrinka’s groundstrokes.
By the beginning of the fourth set, Novak’s toes were black, blue, blistering and bleeding from slipsliding side to side in increasingly desperate attempts to chase down machine gun bullets from Stan. In despair, he had to ask for two medical time outs. Now the cynics might have questioned the timing – when he was precariously close to losing the match and just before Stan had to serve – but the red stain blotched on Novak’s socks and the blood oozing out of one of his right toes confirmed the physical brutality of the contest and exonerated him. He was suffering and wilting under Stan’s relentlessly powerful onslaught. Though he fought valiantly, by the end he could barely gain any elevation on his serve and his movement was all but curtailed. It was all he could do to ask the question of Stan in making him serve it out for the title.
Stan has never been a consistent performer. He is too mercurial, his tennis too high risk. But he is renowned as a big match player. He hangs tough when it matters most. There was never a doubt that Stan would serve it out. Just like the French Open final last year, Stan demolished Novak in four sets, winning 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. He is one Wimbledon away from completing a career Grand Slam of all four titles, an astonishing record for someone who only won his first Grand Slam two and a half years ago as a 28 years old.
Ironically, Stan’s journey to Grand Slam success started at the US Open in 2013, when he defeated defending champion Andy Murray in the quarter finals on his way to a best ever Grand Slam appearance in the semi final. His evolution from Roger Federer’s gentleman in waiting to king of the courts began in the same year with the appointment of Magnus Norman as his coach. Norman had been the coach of the ill-fated Robin Soderling, who famously in 2009 became the first man to defeat Rafa Nadal at the French Open. Sadly Soderling’s career came to a cruelly premature end due to illness. His misfortune helped to change Wawrink’s life. Norman transformed Stan from a maverick journeyman with a jaw dropping, sometime firing lethal weapon of a backhand into a powerhouse with equal groundstrokes on both sides and a vicious serve, and imbued him with a self-belief to go for his shots with fearless confidence.
No patsy percentage play for Stan. Andy Murray should take note. Winners win matches. They don’t wait for their opponents to throw matches away. For all of Murray’s consistency, he has struggled to win on the highest stage against the biggest names. For all of Wawrinka’s inconsistency, his go-for-broke mentality has paid richly deserved dividends in the big finals against the biggest names.
The ‘Big Four’ may be no more but say hello to the ‘Big Three’ – Novak, Andy and Stan. The three winners of the four Grand Slams this year. Usually, the changing of the guard involves the next generation stepping up. Instead, tennis has a golden oldie stepping out from the shadows and into the starlight. In tennis, old is the new young. 31 is the new 21. Stan the Man gives us all hope that it is never too late to be what you might have been.