Stanislas Wawrinka, the new Swiss no. 1 and brand new world no. 3, could be the man to beat throughout the 2014 season. Wawrinka, who was battle tested and prevailed in the Australian Open final against the world no. 1, could find himself meeting Nadal much more now that he will be the 3-seed heading into the larger tournaments. The way he dealt with Nadal through the first set of the men’s final however, if he can keep it up, might mean that he’s the new man to beat this year.
With his impressive wins in the first grand slam of the year, Wawrinka mowed down Novak Djokovic, Thomas Berdych, and finally Rafael Nadal to make a massive jump in pay, ranking points, and notoriety. The Swiss has been stuck in the giant publicity shadow cast by his compatriot Roger Federer for the better part of a decade, but that shall be the story no longer as he surpassed Federer in dramatic style to become the new top Swiss player.
Wawrinka, as the rest of the tennis world learned in a small video clip prior to the mens final, has continued to fight and believe over the years despite tough losses and very few titles to his name. It became apparent that the man overshadowed by the talented Roger Federer had quite a unique and inspiring story of his own. After coming up just short for so many years, Stanislas Wawrinka found a way in the beginning of 2014 to make a huge breakthrough of the kind rarely witnessed in professional mens tennis.
It would have been much less impressive were Wawrinka’s move accomplished by an up-and-coming teenager, or relatively new and talented collegiate player-turned-pro. Stan’s story however, is nothing like that, and in a way much more impressive. It is a story of belief, perseverance, and a never-give-up attitude. The multi-million dollar question, and one that many other languishing, talented, underachieving top pro’s should be asking is, “just how in the #@$% did Stan do what he did?” There may be a few concrete reasons for the “Swiss-Striker’s” success.
It became apparent last year that Wawrinka had hit a new level in his game; one that he had not been able to find throughout his career. Stan has been close, always making for a tough match against the game’s best players, but for some reason he has been just a fraction short of being able to really win. All of that was clearly history last year as the Swiss pushed Novak Djokovic to two incredible 5-set matches in which he could’ve easily won had just a few more points gone his way. He also showed throughout the season that his movement, serve, and forehand had jumped up a notch and were a bit more dangerous than usual.
This year it became glaringly obvious that a new Stan Wawrinka was walking around in a body that vaguely resembled the old Stan. He appears visibly leaner, he moves significantly better, and his forehand is no longer a shot that opponents are happy to engage. As Wawrinka continued to “Stan and deliver” against possibly the best mover in today’s men’s game (Djokovic) it was clear that the Australian Open fans were going to be treated to another thriller between the two new rivals. When Stan continued to best Novak over and over in crosscourt forehand battles, combined with vicious backhands when Djokovic would seek solace by sending the ball into the ad-court mid-rally, it started to look as though Stan was the dominant player among the two.
Were the phenomenon to occur once, maybe it could be dismissed as an off day for Djokovic and lucky one for Stan. Were it to happen on two meetings, maybe more would take notice. However, in the third such match of its kind, it appeared as though Wawrinka is certainly the more dominant of the two if/when he can “Stan and deliver” and what separates the two now is mostly mental. After the Australian Open upset against Djokovic, it could have been argued that only a lack of belief hindered Wawrinka in the two previous meetings. Nothing was too different from the exchanges, except that this time Stan stood firm and continued to rain down blows through the pressure moments.
So, what is responsible for this unprecedented move forward by Stan “the new Swiss man” Wawrinka? The visible and tangible changes appear to be his new fitness level, his new forehand, and his new coach. Wawrinka, although he has never been a poor mover around the court, has always been one of the huskier players on tour. Though it was not so clearly visible in that he could not keep up in extended rallies with the top players, the benefits of his new fitness level may mean that he has just enough extra time to get himself into offensive positions that he previously could not find within the tougher rallies.
Wawrinka’s newest weapon, his improved forehand, could also be cited for some of his newfound success. In years past, players have known to beware of the Swiss’ deadly backhand, however many have been relatively comfortable to play to his forehand. Since the 2013 season, it has become more and more obvious that the Wawrinka forehand is not a shot that any of the top players are happy to face. Shockingly it even appeared as though the Wawrinka forehand, as opposed to his backhand, did the majority of damage throughout his Australian Open campaign.
Finally, and perhaps the most importantly, Wawrinka’s new coach Magnus Norman can be credited with helping to propel him to world no. 3 status. Norman, although it has not been discussed at length how the two train together and what specifically they pinpointed, has molded an entirely new player out of the old Stan. It can be noted that Magnus Norman was the same coach who took Robin Soderling to previously uncharted waters as he shocked Rafael Nadal in a French Open upset some years ago. Norman has had perhaps the greatest, and yet most intangible effects on Wawrinka.
The way that Stanislas Wawrinka played throughout his 2014 Australian Open campaign showed that if he and Norman can continue to do whatever it is that they’ve been doing over the last year, Wawrinka could be the new man to beat. Although he currently only enjoys a world no. 3 ranking, the way that he dealt with Nadal, Djokovic, and Berdych without having to really redline his game, showed that he may be at a level that the other top players will come to fear.
It may not be a year where he can reach the top spot in the game, seeing as Nadal enjoys a massive lead in points and did reach the finals while playing only one exceptional match. Nadal also did mention that the back injury which rendered him ineffective had bothered him slightly during the first set, so it cannot be said with certainty that Wawrinka’s game can dominate the Spanish world no. 1. It may take one more meeting between the two to know for sure if Wawrinka has the firepower and belief to dominate the game’s greatest lefty. With Nadal ranked no. 1, and Wawrinka at no. 3 now, that meeting should happen soon.
The one area that Wawrinka may have to play catchup on, with the help of Magnus Norman, is his mental approach to winning while playing less than stellar tennis. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are both seasoned champions, who surely have studied the intricacies of the game to the point where their chances of winning are not so dependent on their level of play. If Wawrinka can play lights out tennis all year, then fine. However, if he is going to be able to weather storms and ride the ebbs and flows of the game while attaining and sustaining “man to beat” status, then he must emulate Nadal and Djokovic in this category.
After three meetings, it’s clear that Wawrinka has what it takes to deal with Djokovic, but whether he can do the same to a healthy Nadal has yet to be totally answered. If indeed the Swiss can replicate his domination of the top players, specifically Nadal, in the first quarter of this year, then it just may be that Stanislas Wawrinka could find himself the man to beat in 2014.
Editorial by Daniel Worku