Australia heralds new Grand Slam champion, but modest Wawrinka is his old self

Stan Wawrinka, US Open 2012When Stan Wawrinka awoke on his first morning as a Grand Slam champion, the reality may finally have begun to sink in.

For when he faced the cheering crowd of a packed Rod Laver arena in Melbourne to acknowledge his famous victory the night before, he remained bewildered by his success.

It was, in the hours that followed, the same story as he sat—still beaming—in front of a full media centre, and when he faced the cameras and interviews of serried ranks of broadcasters—Sky TV, Eurosport, the BBC and many more.

To be honest, I don’t realise. I still think that I’m dreaming. It’s a strange feeling, you know? I saw so many finals. I always try to watch the final of Grand Slams because that’s where the best players are playing. Before today, for me it wasn’t a dream. I never expect to play a final. I never expect to win a Grand Slam. And right now, I just did it.

For admirers of the soon-to-be-29 Wawrinka’s tennis over the years, there had already been matches that long stayed in the memory, matches that showcased his all-court power, tactical smartness and, of course, one of the most impressive backhands in tennis—a single-handed match-winner in its own right both in its open-chested cross court version and its compact down-the-line missile.

The peaks seemed often to come on the big stages against the big names: the first match played under the Centre Court roof of Wimbledon in 2009, when he lost in five sets to Andy Murray; their replay at the US Open the following year, this time a win in four; successive five-set losses to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros—winning in 2011, losing in 2012.

His form across the board dipped through these years, but in 2013, his tennis fired up new fans as he plied his trade with more intensity, more fitness, more confidence to put the wind up Novak Djokovic not once but twice on Grand Slam stages, in Melbourne and New York. And his defeat of Murray to reach his first US Open semi was perhaps the best, most attacking tennis he had ever played.

He qualified, for the first time, for the World Tour Finals, and reached the semis there, too, but remained modest about his achievement and his chances for the future. And even with a Grand Slam to his name, the modesty has seemed as engrained as the ink in the skin of his arm:

Before today, I always saying that unless you are Roger, Rafa, Novak, you always lose, especially every week. So it’s not easy because tennis life, when you lose, it’s tough to get through and to take a positive from a loss, from failing from a tournament.

[But] it’s quite crazy what’s happening right now. I never expect to win a Grand Slam. I never dream about that because for me, I was not good enough to beat those guys.

He was, he decided, likely to celebrate with friends if his new-found fame allowed the time, for he would not want to miss the flights home to see his wife and almost-four-year-old daughter:

Depends what time we finish here, if we don’t take too much time of me. For sure I’m going to enjoy well… There’s a big chance I get drunk tonight, but we’ll see!

By now, though—champagne permitting—his brain must have calibrated just what he has done. And the list is mightily impressive:

The first man to defeat the No1 and No2 seeds at a Grand Slam since 1993—and the first since then to score three consecutive victories over top 10 players;

The first player to beat Djokovic and Nadal in a Grand Slam, despite having a losing streak of 14 to Djokovic and 12 to Nadal—indeed he had never before won a set from Nadal;

  • 36 Grand Slam appearances, nine unbroken years, to reach a final—only Goran Ivanisevic took longer or was older in claiming a first title;
  • And he even made an impression on the Australian Open’s stats, with a chart-topping 81 aces and tournament leading 146 points off his opponents’ first serves.
  • But there was one new and hugely significant number by Wawrinka’s name when he woke up today: a career-high ranking of No3.

To win a Slam, to be No3, both for me are a big surprise. But I think more to win a Slam. Because in the ranking you can be No3 without winning a Slam. But now it’s both happening, so it’s a big surprise. I saw Roger winning so many Grand Slams in the past, so now it’s my turn to win one. If you look the 10 past years, except del Potro, it’s only the top four guys who was winning all the Grand Slams.

His reference to friend and colleague Roger Federer was timely. Wawrinka came within a hair’s breadth of overtaking his illustrious compatriot last October, but now he is well and truly the higher ranked Swiss while his elder Olympic doubles partner has slipped to his lowest, No8, in more than 11 years.

Never has Wawrinka shown any resentment about the huge shadow that his friend has cast over his own achievements, and now too would talk only of Federer’s support in fulfilling his long-sought success:

Yeah, Roger is a good friend. He’s for me the best player ever. He’s been there since so many years. He was struggling a little bit last year, but except that, he’s an amazing player, amazing friend, because he always wants the best for me. He’s always texting me. Even when he lost, like in the US Open [last year], he was the first person to text me before the match or after the match.

Yeah, I didn’t call so many persons, but my wife, my daughter, my sister, and Roger call me. I know that he’s really, really happy for me. He always wanted the best for me.

That was borne out by Federer’s assertion in Basel last autumn, where he, like Wawrinka, was still competing for a place at he World Tour finals:

I’ll be happy if Stan qualifies. If that meant I would miss it [WTF], I honestly don’t care: It means he was the better player for the year. I’m always happy for his results, to the degree that I’m almost happy if he beats me.

But talk of Federer and Swiss tennis invariably transitions into talk of Davis Cup, and Switzerland will face Serbia in a few days’ time. Federer will not be there but, as always, Wawrinka will be:

Yeah, for sure. Davis Cup is really important for me. I’m really proud. It’s a big honour to play for my country. So for sure I’m still thinking to go there. I don’t know how I’m going to get there exactly, if I’m still going to be alive after tonight, but I’m going to go there.

And that is Stan the Man to a tee. Throw him a challenge and he’ll keep trying to rise to it with the minimum of fuss and bravado. He has tried, failed, tried and failed again. It did not matter—as the message proclaims on his arm. This time, he did not fail, and friends, family and his growing army of fans could not be more pleased.

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