Every battle is won and lost in the head. Despite the brutal physicality of a sport, it all comes down to one tiny fact that can prove to the biggest difference-maker in any duel – which of the two combatants is mentally strong enough to survive the bout.
Time and again, we have seen an athlete building up a huge lead only to give it up in the end. Tennis is no exception.
Serena Williams is possibly the biggest example of how much crucial a role mental fortitude plays. She has won countless battles simply riding on her sheer willpower and an unflinching determination to taste success even when she has looked physically uncomfortable on the court.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the newly-crowned US Open men’s singles champion Stan Wawrinka. Possessing the weapons to dismantle any active rival, it had mostly been his dodgy mental approach that has let him down so many times.
Long known for living in the shadows of his more illustrious compatriot Roger Federer, the Swiss had been labelled as one of the mediocre guys on the Tour. Like plenty of his other peers, the Lausanne-born player used to be considered a dangerous floater in any draw who can cause a few upsets but cannot go all the way.
2013: When his incredible renaissance well and truly began
In stepped the magician coach Magnus Norman, a former French Open runner-up. The dynamics between a coach and his ward are of prime importance in laying the foundation for success. It was not just having more bite on his forehand or a more rigorous fitness regimen that brought about a change in Stan’s results.
For a player to fulfill his potential under the tutelage of his mentor, he has to completely surrender himself. Unquestioned faith and a mutual trust are the biggest requisites for any relationship to flourish. A coach should encourage his protégé to expose his vulnerabilities to him so that he can clear all his doubts and send him to the court, fully focussed with clarity in his vision.
Norman was all that and much more. He embedded in Stan the level of comfort so that he can turn to him for every bit of advice to produce his very best on the court. The Swede was able to evoke the Wawrinka that we had never seen before – one who believes in himself no matter how invincible the opponent across the net can be.
That one flip of a switch inside the Swiss’ mind made an astonishing transformation. With an unprecedented match temperament, he first started pushing the established stars in 2013 only to announce his arrival on the grandest stage of the sport by clinching the Australian Open title in 2014.
Yet, Wawrinka continued to remain an enigma and an unsolved puzzle to many
For all his astounding performances and amazing career revival, they were many shocking defeats in between that were hard to fathom and even explain. Consider his very first Slam match after winning his first Major. At the 2014 French Open, when he came into the claycourt Major after winning the Monte Carlo Masters, expectations were naturally higher from the Swiss.
But Wawrinka then ranked third, made a quiet exit in the first round, losing to World No. 41 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
For once, he made it easy for his detractors to call his win over a back injury-hampered Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open final a fluke and shoo him away as just a one-Slam wonder. But Wawrinka works in his own mysterious ways that might be impossible for others to grasp.
He pushed back that bitter memory of his Roland Garros heartbreak only to return the very next year to grab the title. In a stupendous display of power and a big heart, Wawrinka denied the hot favourite Novak Djokovic the title, extending the Serb’s wait for a much-coveted Career Slam for another year.
Unlike the preceding year, the 30-year-old did not win a single clay title in the run-up to the French Open in 2015. But he managed to keep his mind in the right place for a fortnight to be able to absolutely stun the world.
It had not been easy, though. When he realized the gravity of the situation before playing his maiden final in Paris, Wawrinka admittedly had been a bundle of nerves. 15 minutes before entering the court, stage fright gripped him. It was then all down to his ever-dependable guide Norman to soothe him.
A precious pep talk brought about a calming effect and awakened the champion in him. Even though he would later go on to concede the first set against Djokovic, Norman’s words had done its magic. The Swiss found the inner warrior in him as he did not lose a single more set afterwards.
His unpredictability is what makes him even more fascinating to watch. Because he has the ability to make a mockery of all pre-tournament predictions, Stan is perhaps the most intriguing player currently on the ATP Tour, especially in Slams.
Even his coach pointed out after his French Open triumph that this is what makes him very interesting.
“He’s a very interesting player to watch, because you never know what to expect. This week we saw the greatness of Stan, but next week it could be something else.”