US Open diary: Stan Wawrinka brings out his crazy animal side again, and aren't we a privileged lot
Stan Wawrinka is not just winning Slams because he's become more focused; he's also fitter, stronger, smarter and crazier.
What does Stan Wawrinka’s trademark temple-pointing gesture, which he brings out after every big moment of success, mean?
At first glance it may seem that he’s telling the world how focussed he is. He was known for his careless ways in the early part of his career, which made many fear that he’d never fulfil his immense potential, so it makes sense that he’d want to reinforce the change in that dynamic the last four years. Plus it also looks super-stylish; fist-pumping is so yesterday, as the cool kids will tell you.
But could it be that his temple-pointing is actually one half of the ‘screw loose’ adage, indicating insanity? Because if there’s one word to describe Wawrinka’s play in Grand Slam finals, it is ‘insane’.
Admittedly, the Swiss was helped by Novak Djokovic’s late-match injury on his way to a 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win. But even before the blister started affecting the Serb’s movement in the fourth set, Wawrinka had well and truly rattled the World No. 1’s cage with his booming groundstrokes – in an almost exact replica of their French Open final from 2015.
While Djokovic won the first set in both finals, it was Wawrinka who went into the second set with more confidence each time. And once that confidence translated into his tennis, it almost felt like a dam had burst. Winners started raining off his racquet in a furious torrent, and damage control was all that Djokovic was reduced to.
By all accounts, it’s not normal to play like that in not one, not two, but three Slam finals (Wawrinka had put in a similarly ground-shaking performance in the 2014 Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal). When the stakes are the highest and the stage is the biggest, any sane person would add a little margin to his shots, and try to play within himself.
Not Wawrinka. I don’t know what goes on inside his head before he steps on to the court for a Slam final, but he clearly doesn’t see images of calm waters or soothing fall leaves. I’m willing to bet he sees red – literally. You know, bloody wars, screaming battles, monsters pulling each other’s heads off, that sort of thing?
Nothing else can explain why he plays so differently in a title decider as compared to any other match. He somehow manages to bring out his fiercest serves and groundstrokes when everything is on the line. Every shot that he hits has more purpose, more pace, more angle; when you can make a defensive maestro like Djokovic get blisters on his feet, you know that you’re in the zone with your offense.
I cannot quite figure out why that kind of performance from Wawrinka is only restricted to the semis and beyond though. Even the Grand Slam stage is not enough to get his juices flowing; a lowly first-week match is just too mainstream for him to get worked up about. Wawrinka had to save a match point against Dan Evans in the third round this year, as you’ve probably heard. But that doesn’t even begin to describe his early-round struggles.
I was joined by a couple of my friends at the US Open on Day 8 of the tournament, and since they are relatively new to tennis, I wanted to make sure they took in every aspect of the sport before forming an opinion about its worthiness. They had plonked themselves down for the Venus Williams vs Karolina Pliskova match on Ashe, but Wawrinka was playing at the same time against Ilya Marchenko. So my mission was to get them into Armstrong, so that they could witness first-hand just how magical a well-placed one-handed backhand can look.
Getting them to leave the cosy confines of Ashe and troop all the way to the sunny Armstrong was hard enough. But what was infinitely harder was to make them appreciate the men’s game on the basis of that match – Wawrinka had chosen that exact day to look like ‘Stan the Disinterested Man’, and his play was flat and uninspiring. He choked away the third set, smashed a racquet in the fourth, and in general looked lifeless and talentless. Even the few topspin backhands that he hit didn’t have much sting to them.
All that while, Venus and Pliskova were engaged in a dramatic battle that brought Ashe to its feet. Wawrinka managed to get the win eventually, but not before Pliskova and Venus had each saved a match point in a thrilling encounter that ended with a deciding set tiebreaker. Needless to say, my friends were not pleased at having been forced to miss all of that.
And yet here we are less than a week later, celebrating Wawrinka’s awe-inspiring performance against the best player in the world. ‘Big match player’ is a complete understatement, especially when you also consider that he’s now 11-0 in his last 11 tournament finals.
“He just steps in. He loves to play in the big matches. He comes up with his best game,” was Djokovic’s assessment about the Swiss when asked what makes it so difficult to play him in a final. And who are we to argue with the World No. 1?
Wawrinka himself was quite modest about his mindset going into the match. “Today, before the final, I was really nervous like never before. I was shaking in the locker. When we start five minutes before the match talking, last few things with Magnus, I start to cry. I was completely shaking,” he said in his post-match press conference.
But the only thing shaking once Wawrinka got into his groove mid-way through the first set, was the advertising panel beyond the baseline, as it bore the brunt of the Swiss’ bullets. The stats sheet may show that Wawrinka hit 46 winners to 51 unforced errors, but that’s purely down to how good a defender Djokovic is. Against any other player, the numbers would have been more like 70 winners to 30 errors – Wawrinka was that good yesterday.
Of course, the match had its fair share of drama too, as Djokovic took two medical timeouts in the fourth set for his blisters – one of them before Wawrinka’s serve. The Swiss seemed upset about that, and Djokovic was accused of gamesmanship by a lot of fans on social media. But as the World No. 1 got treatment on his visibly battered feet, and Wawrinka was bouncing up and down to keep himself warm, gamesmanship was the last thing on my mind; all I could think of was how supremely fit the Swiss is.
The humidity in New York has shot through the roof in the last one week, and all the players seemed to have been affected by it. All of them except Wawrinka, that is. While the likes of Djokovic, Nishikori, Del Potro and Monfils were huffing and puffing around him, Wawrinka marched straight ahead, thoroughly unconcerned by the copious amounts of sweat he was shedding.
He ended each of his last three matches on a winner-smacking spree, while his opponents struggled to catch their breath. The contrast was particularly sharp towards the end of the semifinal, when the sultry conditions were at their most extreme. While Nishikori looked like he was about to pass out any moment (and to be fair to him, most spectators in the stands were on the verge of collapsing too), Wawrinka was galloping all around the court, firing winners at will.
He couldn’t have chosen any better way to justify his ‘Stanimal’ nickname. Wawrinka has proven that even at the age of 31, he is an absolute beast on the court fitness-wise (and also shotmaking-wise).
The Swiss now has the same number of Major titles as Andy Murray, and in the last three years he has won more Slams than Federer and Nadal combined. Is the Big 4 now a Big 5, as so many have been suggesting? Djokovic certainly thinks so. “No doubt about it. Stan won three Grand Slams now and three different ones; Olympic medal. Been around for so many years, and he plays best in the big matches. I mean, he definitely deserves to be mentioned in the mix of top players,” he said.
Wawrinka himself was more circumspect. “The Big 4, I'm really far from them. Just look (at) the tournament they won, how many years they been there. If you look, yes, I have three Grand Slams. How many Masters 1000 have Murray? They have been there since ten years,” he said when he was asked whether he agreed with Djokovic.
I must say I’m leaning towards Wawrinka’s view at the moment. While he has been a tremendous big stage player, his day-to-day consistency is not quite up to the mark for him to be bracketed alongside the other four.
But how does that matter? There’s a reason why Wawrinka is such a fan favourite wherever he goes – his brand of unbridled shot-making is as pure and thrilling a sight as any you’ll ever see in the sporting world, and it deserves to be preserved in memory for its own sake. Big 4, Big 5 – we’ll probably not remember these terms 10 years from now. But we’ll certainly remember Wawrinka’s down-the-line backhand whizzing past a resigned Djokovic for a stone cold winner.
It’s okay to not be a part of the Big 4, and to not be the World No. 1. Wawrinka’s insane, jaw-dropping, temple-pointing display is its own reward, and all the tennis fans in the world right now are privileged to have witnessed it live.