Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka holds the trophy after his victory against Spain's Rafael Nadal during the men's singles final of the 2014 Australian Open in Melbourne. (AFP Photo)
Stanislas Wawrinka emerged from behind the shadow of Roger Federer to claim his own place in the men's tennis order by winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open on Sunday.
He extended illustrious rival Rafael Nadal’s injury-cursed run at the Australian Open with a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 upset in the final.
It has been a break-out tournament for the understated Swiss, who registered an epic five-set win over three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic en route to the final.
This was the first Grand Slam final for the 28-year-old who was for long seen as the ‘other Swiss’ owing to countryman Roger Federer’s brilliance.
Even though Nadal was struggling with a back injury, Wawrinka coped admirably with the pressure to take the championship in four sets.
Adding spice to his achievement is that Wawrinka has supplanted Federer as the number one ranked Swiss player, a position his close friend has occupied since 2001.
Wawrinka's rise from world number 17 at year-end 2012 to three in next week's new rankings stems from his monumental fourth round match with Djokovic at last year's Australian Open, which went 12-10 in the fifth set.
He carried this momentum on to his tight defeat in New York, and his redeeming victory over Djokovic in the quarters this week, before Sunday's breakthrough win.
Tattooed on his left forearm are the words of Irish poet Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." And Wawrinka has been a model of perseverance.
He lost 14 times in a row before triumphing over Djokovic this week, and also went 12 matches without even taking a set off Nadal until beating him on Sunday.
"The match against Novak gave me a lot of confidence and showed me that I can play on a very high level in a very important match against one of the bug guys," Wawrinka said.
"After the (2013) semi-final at the US Open I knew that I was close to be there. But it still was far away for me to make a final in a Grand Slam.
"It's tough for me to have as a goal to make the final in a Grand Slam, especially with Novak, Rafa, Roger and Andy (Murray). I knew I had the level to beat the top players, but to be in the final you have to do it again and again."
Wawrinka has always been admired for his artful one-handed backhand but it's his all-round game, also armed with a potent serve and forehand, which has propelled him into Grand Slam contention over the last 18 months.
"I now have more confidence in myself. I know that when I go on court I can beat almost everybody, even on the big stage like in a Grand Slam semi-final," he said.
"It's a lot about confidence, especially with my game that I'm playing quite fast from the baseline, trying to always be aggressive.
"So I take a lot of risks and it's important to be really fresh and relaxed in my head."
That also corresponds with the arrival of Magnus Norman as his coach last April, with the Swede formerly in charge of countryman Robin Soderling, who is the only man to beat clay king Rafael Nadal at the French Open back in 2009.
Wawrinka said he was now in the best form of his career and was better at handling the pressure of big matches.
"Last year I had the feeling that I was playing better, but I was also dealing better with the pressure," he said.
"I'm more mature. I'm 28 now. I've been on the tour for 10 years. Now I feel that it's my time to play my best tennis.
"I'm enjoying more what I'm doing, when I'm winning, and also maybe I know more how to deal with all the pressure."
Nadal, who struggled with a back injury to go along with a blistered palm, was gracious in defeat.
"Stan, you really deserve it. Luck was against me today but you really deserve it.
"Last thing that I wanted to do was retire. I hate to do that, especially in a final. Same time, is tough to see yourself during the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and arrives the moment and you feel that you are not able to play at your best."
Nadal has had a terrible stretch with injuries at the Australian Open, and has described it as his unluckiest Grand Slam. He won the title in 2009, and lost an epic five-set final to Djokovic in 2012. But he missed the 2013 edition during a seven-month layoff with knee injuries and illness, and his quarterfinal losses in 2010 and 2011 were affected by injuries.
"It has been a very emotional two weeks — I'm sorry to finish this way," he told the Rod Laver Arena crowd. "I tried very, very hard — this year was one of the more emotional tournaments in my career."
A possible retirement was looming when Nadal was serving at 0-2 in the second set. He bent over at the waist to stretch his back and then grabbed his lower back with his hand and grimaced in pain. His serve immediately dipped to 141 kph (87 mph).
When Nadal took a medical timeout after falling behind a set and a break, and returned to a chorus of boos without a shirt after 7 minutes, it seemed that an early finish was on the cards.
Wawrinka lost his cool during the time out, demanding officials tell him why Nadal needed the break. And he came out aggressively to finish off the second set.
Nadal's serve speed dipped even further to 125 kmph (77 mph) and then 114 kmph (70 mph). The support in the stadium gradually shifted as the crowd saw the Spaniard battling to stay on the court.
His service speed improved in the beginning of the third set, prompting a fan to yell advice to Wawrinka: "C'mon Stan, no sympathy!"
By the end of the set, Nadal's serve was back up to 174 kmph (108 mph) and Wawrinka’s error count was escalating.
The Swiss composed himself after an exchange of breaks in the fourth set to serve it out in 2 hours, 21 minutes. After a muted celebration, he consoled Nadal in the courtside chairs before getting a chance to hold up and kiss his first big trophy.