Big Game Hunter



In a great era of ten­nis, Stan Wawrinka has some­how re­mained un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. Keep win­ning Slams, and that will have to change.

It was near­ing 2am in New York when Stan Wawrinka, comfy in a grey hoodie, sat down for his post-match presser at the US Open. He’d just de­feated former win­ner Juan Martin del Potro in a thrilling quar­ter-fi­nal, crack­ing 53 win­ners. This match con­firmed Wawrinka was on track for what would be his third ma­jor in three years. You might have ex­pected a “Well done” to pref­ace the first ques­tion. In­stead, Wawrinka got a “Why bother?”

“I won­der what mo­ti­vates you,” lobbed a Euro­pean jour­nal­ist, play­ing devil’s ad­vo­cate at the un­godly hour. “You won two Slams, you are very rich, you’ll never catch Fed­erer, Nadal, Djokovic [in] num­ber of tro­phies. So frankly, I think that one more Slam will not change much.”

“So what should I do?” shot back Wawrinka. “I’m 31 years old. What do you want me to do? Just go to the beach? Not do any­thing? Did you ask that ques­tion to Rafa also or to No­vak or to Andy?

“I love my sport. I en­joy to play ten­nis. It’s my pas­sion. I start when I was re­ally young. If you just look at the match tonight you have the an­swer. It’s amaz­ing feel­ing to be out there.”

Three years af­ter the 2014 Aus­tralian Open, where he smashed the gilded Grand Slam reign of Roger Fed­erer, Rafael Nadal, No­vak Djokovic and Andy Mur­ray, Wawrinka is con­stantly re­minded he’ll never match the beloved Big Four. Never mind that only Djokovic has won more ma­jors (six) in the last three sea­sons. Or that Wawrinka is equal with Mur­ray as a triple ma­jor win­ner.

At times, the self-ef­fac­ing Swiss is made to feel like a bull in the Big Four china shop. “You made stupid mis­takes,” a jour­nal­ist told Wawrinka in Monte Carlo last April, fol­low­ing a 6-1, 6-4 loss to Nadal. “We saw you were do­ing Stan again.” Asked to ex­plain “do­ing Stan”, the re­porter replied: “When you are an­gry at your­self and you don’t play well.”

Wawrinka was now get­ting jack. “If I can ‘do Stan’ like I did dur­ing the past two years,” he said, “win­ning ti­tles and Grand Slams, I would sign up for it.”

This is the guy who busted the Big Four? In some ways the ten­nis world is still get­ting a fix on Wawrinka, the self-de­scribed ‘other Swiss’ with the Pol­ish name, Czech and Ger­man an­ces­try and French-ac­cented English. Af­ter his break­through Slam win, Wawrinka of­fi­cially short­ened his first name from Stanis­las to Stan. Nick­names in­clude the in­evitable Stan the Man and the more orig­i­nal Stan­i­mal. If the lat­ter evokes a ram­pag­ing beast, a ten­nis ver­sion of the bar­bar­ians who brought down the Ro­man Em­pire, it’s not en­tirely in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

There’s a slash­ing, full-blooded qual­ity to Wawrinka’s game, a raw phys­i­cal­ity that’s less ten­nis match than bar-room brawl. But this is no mind­less ten­nis thug. Wawrinka wields a sin­gle-handed back­hand that is per­haps the game’s fore­most ex­pres­sion of ki­netic beauty.

If you ap­pre­ci­ate cre­ative dis­rupters, sport­ing win­ners who flip the script, Stan is your man. He was the first player in more than 20 years to de­feat the top two (Djokovic and an in­jured Nadal) in a ma­jor. More shock­ing at that 2014 Aussie Open, he bumped Fed­erer down to Swiss No.2.

In many ways, Wawrinka is an un­likely ca­bal-buster. At 183cm and 81kg, he would not fill out the Thor cos­tume of Chris Hemsworth. With his scrag­gly beard, you can pic­ture him just as eas­ily in chef’s whites as ten­nis whites, a man who knows his char­cu­terie from his serve-vol­ley.

Ahead of that 2014 Aussie Open, there was lit­tle sense of the havoc he would wreak. Just shy of his 29th birth­day, he’d made one Grand Slam semi in his en­tire ca­reer. The game won­dered if Wawrinka had left his charge too late. The man him­self laughed off a ques­tion about what had pre­vented him from win­ning a ma­jor “so far”.

“So far?” Wawrinka echoed. “I’m so far away. I’m im­prov­ing. I’m re­ally happy. But I’m not think­ing [of] win­ning a Grand Slam. I’m too far away.”

All the num­bers Wawrinka car­ried into Mel­bourne Park three Jan­uarys ago were un­der­whelm­ing. He had a record of three wins and 42 losses against the Big Three of Fed­erer, Nadal and Djokovic. He’d won five mi­nor ATP ti­tles – not even a mid­dle-rung 500 se­ries event among them, let alone a Masters. A ma­jor? Fugged­abou­dit!

Yet fast-for­ward three years and Wawrinka, as the neme­sis to the Djokovic jug­ger­naut, is hailed as the ul­ti­mate big-match player. The num­bers have flipped. He is 3-0 in ma­jor fi­nals; Fed­erer in that same span is 0-3. All-time crazy stat: Wawrinka is 3-0 against No.1s in Grand Slam de­ciders, and 0-20 else­where. The US Open was his 11th straight fi­nals vic­tory. He’s won more ma­jors af­ter age 30, and at a more ad­vanced age, than Fed­erer.

How trans­for­ma­tional was that 2014 Aussie Open? Against the Big Four, Wawrinka was 9-50 be­fore 2014; he’s 9-13 since. He’s won three of seven against Djokovic (lead­ing 3-1 in fi­nals), drawn level against Mur­ray (1-1) and Nadal (3-3), and gone 2-5 against Fed­erer.

So has the Big Four ex­panded to a Fab Five? “He plays best in the big matches,” noted Djokovic, again at the re­ceiv­ing end at the US Open. “He def­i­nitely de­serves to be men­tioned in the mix of top play­ers.”

Wawrinka him­self is happy to be the out­sider. “The Big Four, I’m re­ally far from them,” he in­sisted (again) in New York. “They have been [at the top] for ten years.

That’s why I’m not there. For me, there is no ques­tion about that. But I’m try­ing the best I can with my ca­reer. I’m proud of my­self by win­ning three Grand Slams. This is some­thing I never ex­pect and dream about.

“I never dreamed to win a Grand Slam un­til I won the Aus­tralian Open. It was never a dream be­cause for me it was too far [away]. And here again, I ar­rive with­out putting goal to win it. Ev­ery time I step on the court I know I can beat my op­po­nent. But when I start the tour­na­ment, I’m not see­ing the draw and say[ing], ‘Okay, my goal is to win the tour­na­ment.’ No. I just want to push my­self to the limit and see where I can go.”

The Big Four don’t have stick­ers on their Maser­atis. Wawrinka is the only top player with a tat­too and the only one to be di­vorced. Enough to qual­ify him as some­thing of a bad ass.

Wawrinka’s ink – the most fa­mous in the game – is a Sa­muel Beck­ett quote in­side his left fore­arm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No mat­ter. Try again. Fail again. Fail bet­ter.” It’s a clear poin­ter that Wawrinka even in his late 20s be­lieved it was his des­tiny to fall short. “I had that quote in my head for a long time,” Wawrinka said as the Aus­tralian Open cham­pion, hav­ing put a whole new spin on “epic fail”. “It was how I see the life, and es­pe­cially how I see the ten­nis life. Be­fore to­day, I al­ways say­ing that ex­cept [for] Roger, Rafa, No­vak, you al­ways lose, ev­ery week. It’s not easy when you lose to take a pos­i­tive from fail­ing [in] a tour­na­ment. So that’s how I see, in gen­eral, my ca­reer. I al­ways go back to the court. I al­ways go back to prac­tise to try to im­prove.” His cel­e­brated ri­vals guard con­tro­ver­syfree pri­vate lives, while Wawrinka has gone through a pub­lic mar­riage break-up and fren­zied in­ter­est in his re­la­tion­ship with 20year-old WTA player Donna Ve­kic. Their union made in­fa­mous world head­lines af­ter it was outed via Nick Kyr­gios’ no­to­ri­ous sledge at Wawrinka dur­ing their match at Mon­treal in Au­gust 2015. Wawrinka and Ve­kic, who share rac­quet and man­age­ment com­pa­nies, had been an item long be­fore but didn’t go pub­lic, since Wawrinka only an­nounced in April 2015 the end of his mar­riage to Il­ham Vuil­loud, a Swiss TV pre­sen­ter and former model. They had been to­gether ten years and have a seven-year-old daugh­ter, Alexia.

Vuil­loud, ten years older than her former hus­band, took ex­cep­tion to his Face­book state­ment which char­ac­terised their split as mu­tual and hit back pub­licly. Wawrinka’s “de­sire to re­gain his free­dom – at all lev­els” was the rea­son for their split, she said, point­edly not­ing “other play­ers, ranked higher than him, han­dle fam­ily life very well”.

Onto the French Open in May, and Wawrinka’s cam­paign was rocked by the of­fi­cial tour­na­ment web­site of all things, specif­i­cally a gossip item al­leg­ing he and the-then 18-year-old Ve­kic “have more in com­mon than just an agent”.

Though livid at the “shit ar­ti­cle” – which was speed­ily re­moved and the un­named jour­nal­ist bun­dled into hid­ing – Wawrinka weath­ered the un­wel­come at­ten­tion and stunned both Fed­erer (for the first time in a Grand Slam) and Djokovic to win the ti­tle a fort­night later. His mood was not helped by the fash­ion po­lice tak­ing shots at his lairy checked shorts. At his vic­tory press con­fer­ence he draped the shorts (pre­sum­ably a clean pair) be­fore the desk like bunting. Mi­cro­phones were not

re­quired; the “Eat my shorts” mes­sage was loud enough.

It was well known in ten­nis that Wawrinka left his fam­ily soon af­ter his daugh­ter’s ar­rival in 2010, and that he strug­gled to rec­on­cile the de­mands of fam­ily life with top ten­nis. This is not to cast him in a bad light but to recog­nise that he trav­elled a dif­fer­ent road to fel­low ma­jor­win­ning dads Fed­erer, Djokovic and Mur­ray. Youngest of the group to be­come a fa­ther, at 24, the fraught pri­vate life is one more factor that should have counted against Wawrinka be­ing where he is now.

Wawrinka’s rise as a win­ner be­gan with a bru­tal loss. His 1­6, 7­5, 6­4, 6­7(5), 12­10 gloves­off night bout against Djokovic in the 2013 Aus­tralian Open was the match of the year. It takes some­thing spe­cial to get jaded jour­nal­ists away from their screens a week be­fore the fi­nal but when Wawrinka pow­ered to a 6­2, 4­1 lead they poured into Rod Laver Arena like it was a heavy­weight ti­tle fight in Ve­gas. Ding ding! We had a new con­tender.

As he ap­proached the net for the post­match hand­shake, Wawrinka was al­ready in tears and even re­peated view­ings of the match wouldn’t have helped him fathom how he lost. A few weeks later he inked his arm with “Fail bet­ter”. An even smarter move was hir­ing the as­tute and grounded Magnus Nor­man, a former world No.2, as his coach.

“I was dom­i­nat­ing the match … did not fin­ish it,” Wawrinka re­flected at the US Open. But there was a shift in the play­ers’ per­cep­tions of him, and in Wawrinka, too. He showed enor­mous char­ac­ter in tak­ing self­be­lief out of the des­o­la­tion. “For sure that match was some­thing spe­cial in my ca­reer,” he said. (Not since Bjorn Borg has any­one larded his speech with more “for sure”.)

“That’s when I started to be­lieve and re­alise my­self that, yeah, maybe I can beat top player in a Grand Slam. It took me a lit­tle time. I did it step­by­step, by com­ing back to the top ten, by mak­ing first quar­ter­fi­nal (at the 2013 French Open), first semi­fi­nal (2013 US Open). But for sure this match was im­por­tant for my ca­reer.”

Is it karma? The law of at­trac­tion? Po­etic jus­tice? Surely some­thing cos­mic is in play here: at all three of his ma­jor tri­umphs since, Wawrinka has gone through Djokovic. By the 2014 Aus­tralian Open, a year on from their 2013 epic, Wawrinka was al­ready the player Djokovic least wanted to see across the net. Not only has he be­come the Ser­bian su­per­man’s kryp­tonite; theirs is the mar­quee match­up of the past few years. “He’s men­tally a beast,” Wawrinka says of his archri­val. “I think the match­up has al­ways been in­ter­est­ing be­cause the way we are play­ing. I’m try­ing to be ag­gres­sive. I can play re­ally hard. He is amaz­ing de­fender. And also, we started with fiveset match in Aus­tralia [in 2013]. Then I played my first semi­fi­nal in Grand Slam against him [at the 2013 US Open] and again five sets. So we play some long match, some crazy bat­tle.” At Flush­ing Mead­ows, Djokovic blitzed the first­set tiebreak 7­1 and was far fresher, hav­ing logged half the court time of his op­po­nent (nine hours to Wawrinka’s 18), as the ben­e­fi­ciary of no less than two re­tire­ments and a walkover. But once the Stan­i­mal got his teeth in the match, nei­ther his lock­er­room

anx­i­ety at­tack, not a third-set cramp, nor two ques­tion­able in­jury time­outs from Djokovic, stopped his 6-7(1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 march to the ti­tle.

“He was more coura­geous, he stepped in and played ag­gres­sive, where I was kind of wait­ing for things to hap­pen,” Djokovic tellingly ad­mit­ted. “He knows,” added Wawrinka, “that I can play my best ten­nis in the fi­nal of a Grand Slam.”

Imag­ine liv­ing in the shadow of the lu­mi­nous Fed­erer. Tough act to fol­low, much? Wawrinka could be the ten­nis ver­sion of Jan Brady – sub­sti­tute “Mar­cia, Mar­cia, Mar­cia” for “Roger, Roger, Roger”. But Wawrinka sees no mixed bless­ing in play­ing in the age of the GOAT. It’s all good.

The first call Wawrinka took af­ter be­com­ing the Aus­tralian Open cham­pion was from Fed­erer. “I know that he’s re­ally, re­ally happy for me,” Wawrinka said. “He al­ways wanted the best for me. He’s an amaz­ing player, amaz­ing friend. He’s al­ways tex­ting me. Even if he lost, he was the first per­son to text me be­fore [my] match or af­ter the match.”

Fed­erer has long talked up his “very tal­ented” younger coun­try­man, the 2003 French ju­nior cham­pion. The first dou­bles ti­tle Wawrinka won was the Bei­jing gold medal, along­side Fed­erer.

But if Fed­erer made Switzer­land’s first Davis Cup reach­able, it was Wawrinka who made it a re­al­ity, as Fed­erer ac­knowl­edged af­ter seal­ing the 2014 fi­nal with a straight­sets de­mo­li­tion of Richard Gas­quet in France. “It’s Stan who put us in this great po­si­tion,” said the Swiss No.1, hav­ing lost in straight sets on open­ing day to Gael Mon­fils, while Wawrinka beat French No.1 Jo-Wil­fried Tsonga. Af­ter clinch­ing the one jewel to have eluded him over a bril­liant ca­reer, Fed­erer said it was not about him. “I wanted it more for the guys and for [cap­tain] Sev­erin [Luthi] and Stan, the staff and ev­ery­body in­volved. This is one for the boys.”

The Wawrinka-Fed­erer re­la­tion­ship was re­con­fig­ured some­what af­ter Stan joined the Grand Slam club and dis­placed Fed­erer as the top Swiss player. In Mel­bourne, as the newly minted win­ner, Wawrinka was asked how he would stop the “ten­nis crime” of Fed­erer sit­ting out the Davis Cup tie a week away – in No­vak Djokovic’s Ser­bia – now that Switzer­land had a se­ri­ous shot at the ti­tle. Wawrinka re­fused to put pres­sure on Fed­erer.

But with the Nike now on the other foot – Fed­erer re­quired to play the sup­port­ing role – pub­lic sen­ti­ment was with its new cham­pion, Wawrinka al­ready hav­ing been voted Swiss of the Year in 2013. While Fed­erer hadn’t played a Davis Cup first round since 2004, Wawrinka had slogged it out in unglam­orous tours of duty. There was no bet­ter demon­stra­tion of his Davis Cup com­mit­ment than a record, ridicu­lous seven-hour loss in dou­bles (along­side Marco Chi­udinelli), 24-22 in the fifth set, to Czech pair To­mas Berdych and Lukas Rosol, in the 2013 de­feat at home in Geneva. Mi­nus Fed­erer.

A year on, the op­tics of again sit­ting out a tough first round would not have been good for Fed­erer. He high-tailed it to Ser­bia at the last minute, though the tie it­self proved an an­ti­cli­max, with the Serbs miss­ing their top three.

Switzer­land’s long-awaited Davis Cup win was all the more re­mark­able for com­ing just a week af­ter Fed­er­erWawrinka re­la­tions hit their low point, dur­ing the in­fa­mous “cry-baby” semi-fi­nal of the ATP Fi­nals in Lon­don. Wawrinka held four match points but was clearly rat­tled by com­ments com­ing from Fed­erer’s player box (most likely from his wife, Mirka) and lost 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(6). French tele­vi­sion picked up Wawrinka mut­ter­ing “She did the same thing at Wim­ble­don” – where Fed­erer won their quar­ter-fi­nal in four sets.

Post-match, Wawrinka de­clined to elab­o­rate on the dis­trac­tion, or iden­tify the heck­ler. Fed­erer mean­while, had in­jured his back in the last mo­ments of the match and had to for­feit the fi­nal to Djokovic. The fall­out could have been much big­ger. While the two Swiss stars thrashed it out late into the night in a cleared locker-room, the ten­nis world was left to spec­u­late on whether the spat would cost Switzer­land its fairy-tale Cup win, now that it was within reach.

All was for­given af­ter the vic­tory in Lille, where both men re­fused to re­visit the events of Lon­don. While the world was fix­ated on the “Swiss-stars-at-war” sce­nario, it was the French team that ended up im­plod­ing.

SOhow­far can “step-by-step” Stan go? Can he beat new No.1 Mur­ray to a ca­reer Grand Slam? Only Wim­ble­don is miss­ing from the Wawrinka re­sume, while Mur­ray is with­out the Aus­tralian and French tro­phies.

“Are you say­ing [this] year I fo­cus only on Wim­ble­don?” he asks. “I’m not good enough to say, ‘Okay, I’m go­ing to win a Grand Slam this year.’ No. The only plan is try­ing to push my­self the max­i­mum to be the best player I can. I’m fight­ing with my­self ev­ery day to im­prove.”

Nat­u­rally, the man whose ca­reer has been de­fined and saved by in­cre­men­tal goals won’t coun­te­nance high-step­ping it up to the sum­mit. “My best rank­ing was No.3 in the world. It’s sim­ple. I’m way too far to even think about be­ing No.1.” Yeah, well. We’ve heard that be­fore from Stan Wawrinka, the big-game hunter who blasts, but never talks, a big game.

Re­spect from No­vak af­ter their Aussie epic in 2013. Wawrinka supreme last Slam.

Wawrinka made it in New York, and col­lected Slam no.3.

The Stan­i­mal is surely a ten­nis beast, but that sin­gle-hand back­hand is a thing of beauty.


Fi­nally free from the Fed­erer shadow [ ], is an­other Mel­bourne spot­light in the off­ing?

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