Stan The Big Match Player Man Wawrinka The Game The Fight The Heart

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Photo courtesy of www.buaxua.vu

Stan Wawrinka’s 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 US Open final defeat of Novak Djokovic showed tennis fans once again why he has earned himself the reputation of the game’s current best big match player. The Tennis Review looks at the Champion’s big game, fight and heart.

Before Stan Wawrinka contested this year’s US Open final versus top seed Novak Djokovic, he was, in his own words, shaking and crying in the locker room. After one long match after another in fierce humid conditions, he was about to compete on the 22, 000 capacity Arthur Ashe stadium, the biggest tennis stage of them all, in the Big Apple, against a much fresher world no.1 renowned for finding his best game in finals.

That stage fright did not get the better of Wawrinka, though- champion that he is, it made him dig deep and fight. The Swiss did get off to a slow start, going 3-5 down, but he took the first set to a tiebreaker, and while he won only one point in that tiebreak, when it came to his chances in the rest of the match, it was a big one.

After striking forehand blows from the baseline, Wawrinka approached the net on a backhand which drew Djokovic wide, picked up a half volley, got his racket on a perfectly placed shot on the sideline, hit a high backhand volley and then finally put the ball away on a forehand volley.

Djokovic may have won the next five points to take the first set, but from the second set onwards, the Swiss was in it, and he was not afraid to win it. His offensive game, arguably the biggest in men’s tennis, clicked, just as it had done versus other supposedly better fast hard courters Juan Martin del Potro and Kei Nishikori, and Wawrinka took the next three sets, and his third slam from three finals.

That big offensive game is one reason Wawrinka has now won his last 11 ATP finals, a haul which includes three slams, an ATP 1000 in Monte Carlo, and ATP 500s in Rotterdam, Tokyo and Dubai.

Few tennis players hit with Wawrinka’s power, aggression and courage in the big moments, strengths which, when he finds his rhythm, dominate whatever the surface. As good as the defence of the likes of Djokovic and Nadal might be, it cannot answer to a Wawrinka at the height of his powers, heights he strolls to once the peak is in his sight.

The US Open, for example, was considered to be too fast for Wawrinka to set up his powerful strokes, but, unlike in New York in 2015, Wawrinka did not face an opponent like Federer who took his time away over the course of an entire match.

This year, Wawrinka’s opponents managed to exploit his weaknesses for spells here and there but they then fell away in the heat, both from the punishing weather and the punishing serve and groundstrokes of a Wawrinka who was able to outlast and outslug them.

That ability to stay with better playing opponents and then raise your game and turn the match your way when the chance comes is one Wawrinka has developed since 2013 when he was one of tennis’ nearly men and it is an ability that has made him one of its seven active grand slam champions and even fewer active multi slam champions (five). Now, when momentum swings Wawrinka’s way, he doesn’t just grab it, he tears it from its roots and plants it in his heart.

On the way to defeating Djokovic in the final, the third seed hit 46 winners, including 13 winners on his forehand and 12 on his backhand, and made 51 errors. Those stats show the courage he had to take the match to Djokovic and while they are not as impressive as his ones from the 2015 Roland Garros final win over Djokovic (60-45), in any tennis match, no matter how big, you only have to play bigger than one other person, your opponent, and you have to do it on the big points.

In his seventh US Open final, Djokovic was below his best, but he was still playing well enough that if Wawrinka had not been as tough as he is on the big points, the Serbian might have gotten away with it.

The defending champion was not getting away with an impaired serve and backhand in this year’s final, however. Points in slam finals do not come much bigger than break ones, and the Swiss took full advantage of Djokovic’s weaknesses, earning ten break points and converting six. Meanwhile, Djokovic had 17 and won 3, his lack of match practise hurting him as well as his inability to hit his destructive backhand down the line.

That ability to convert a greater percentage of break points, and to bring out his big serves breakpoint down was a crucial factor in Wawrinka’s win. The Swiss has an enviable knack of fighting back from 0-30 and break point down in big matches. It is an ability born from his all-consuming desire to win the big matches when he is in them, the desire that drew him to tears in the locker room.

Those nerves were settled with some key advice from coach Magnus Norman who told him, however much he was suffering physically and mentally in the final, to make sure to hide his pain and keep fighting, a fight he knew he could give, fight ignited in the third round when the Swiss saved a match point versus Dan Evans and which spread like wildfire from one match to the next all the way to the final.

Wawrinka, if he is in the final, knows he has improved match by match, which gives him confidence to fight, and confidence is everything when taking on the likes of Novak Djokovic, a player who led him 19-4 before the final, a player Wawrinka said in his trophy presentation speech made him the player he is.

With three slam wins from three finals, and defeating the number 1 in each of them, Wawrinka is the player who has posed the greatest challenge to the dominance of the Big Four, the Swiss now holding as many slams as Andy Murray. In each final, Wawrinka has been the better player despite his opponent’s potentially distracting injuries and possibly derailing MTOs, winning head to heads and better history at the event. None of that matters for Wawrinka when winning matters most, and tennis fans will look ahead eagerly to see if Wawrinka can bring that big match mentality to the biggest event of them all, Wimbledon, and complete the career Grand Slam.

 

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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