US Open 2016: How ‘underachiever’ Stan Wawrinka evolved into the giant-killer
From an “underachiever”, destined to forever be in the shadow of Roger Federer, to a giant-killer with a penchant to turn up with all strokes blazing against the stars on the grandest of stages, the Swiss player has heard it all.US Open 2016 Updated: Sep 12, 2016 20:51 IST
It’s intriguing how the tennis world has, over the years, described Stan Wawrinka. From an “underachiever”, destined to forever be in the shadow of Roger Federer, to a giant-killer with a penchant to turn up with all strokes blazing against the stars on the grandest of stages, the Swiss player has heard it all.
Wawrinka’s career is a classic example of how modern tennis can be ruthless to talent unless it translates to immediate success on the ATP Tour. Well, the Novak Djokovics or Rafael Nadals are present in every generation — whose careers take off as teens, peak in the mid-20s and tapers off by the early 30s. Then there is Wawrinka, whose career gathered steam in his late 20s and seems to be peaking in the 30s — à la vintage wine.
A late bloomer, but possessing the talent and the strokes to be a world beater whenever he wanted to, Wawrinka, in the early part of his career, more often than not, didn’t turn up for matches with intent… His turnaround began after 2012, while his association with former world no 1 Magnus Norman, which began in 2013, has changed the way Wawrinka approached the Majors.
The 31-year-old from Lausanne is one of those romantics—the whipping backhand can decimate anyone across the net—be it Nadal, Djokovic, Federer or Andy Murray (he has beaten them all). But as romantics go, his game can be moody and, at times, average. The association with Norman has helped Wawrinka bring out his ‘A’ game more consistently, and more importantly, when the stakes are high.
One has had the pleasure of seeing the newly-crowned US Open champion progress up the tennis hierarchy thanks to his association with the Chennai Open since 2009 — the traditional season-opener for the world no 3. Wawrinka was champion in Chennai on four occasions (2011, ’14, ’15 and 2016). But he has always been a treat to watch, even when he was a top-20 thereabouts, work-in-progress player trying to break out of the overbearing yardstick set by Federer.
This year in Chennai, Wawrinka opened up about his “little talent”, on how he started late into tennis, and what makes him the Big Four slayer though he is happy being considered an outsider to the big boys’ club.
“I started when I was 8,” he said, of the early days. “I wasn’t the most talented young player, but I’ve always enjoyed tennis and spending a lot of time on court. I then entered the top 100 at the age of 20. During the last few years I became more mature, especially mentally, and my good performances against top players have shown me that I can beat them when playing my best tennis. I have done things I never expected to be able to do.”
Federer’s friendship has had a deep influence in Wawrinka’s career and so has beating the maestro. Wawrinka still remembers the moment he beat his senior for the first time—a rainy day in Monte Carlo.
“Roger was already on tour for a while when I came along,” recalled Wawrinka. “He was always there to help me. He’s a great friend and an amazing athlete. I don’t really see myself stepping out of his shadow. But for sure people have got to know me better in the last two years. I first beat him on a rainy day in Monte Carlo back in 2009, a couple of days after his wedding. It was a great victory for me on one of the most beautiful centre courts in the world.”
Beating Federer removed a huge mental block for Wawrinka but he still had to sort out a few things in his game, besides fine-turning the mind. Norman has taken care of that.
There has always been a bit of lazy elegance in how Wawrinka moves around the court, till he unleashes those lethal ground strokes—and that one-handed backhand. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry while running around the court but always has time at hand to place his strokes to perfection. Didn’t we see Djokovic admiring the beauty in the backhand a couple of times during their final!
“As a child I played a two-handed backhand. But it wasn’t very good… So, together with my coach Dimitri Zavialoff, we changed it to a one-handed backhand. It is very natural and powerful and I like to be very aggressive with it. The preparation and the legs are crucial,” said Wawrinka of his weapon which troubles everyone, including Djokovic.
The world no 2 Serb and Wawrinka are friends and the mutual respect they have was evident when Djokovic apologised for delaying Wawrinka’s moment of glory with unavoidable medical breaks during the final.
Of course, Wawrinka has earned that respect too; after all, he is the only player on tour now to have beaten Djokovic on three different Grand Slams, en route to the title each time—the 2014 Australian Open, the 2015 French Open and in New York on Sunday.