Big Game Hunter
STAN WAWRINKA IS THE HEAVY-HITTING-BADASS WHO BLASTED THE BIG FOUR OF TENNIS. AND HIS TROPHY WALL IS LIKELY NOT DONE YET.
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?