April 20, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

Late-bloomer Wawrinka wins Australian Open

MELBOURNE – Perhaps, in the end, it was just Stanislas Wawrinka’s time to shine, his reward for working harder than ever at the relatively advanced age of 28, unsatisfied with merely being one of the better players in the world.

And the Avis of Swiss men’s tennis is the new Australian Open champion, after a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over a hobbled Rafael Nadal that will have tennis fans talking for a good long while.

“Relief, excitement, pride, honestly I really don’t realize what’s going on,” Wawrinka said in his late-night press conference after making the rounds of the television networks and even making an appearance at the tournament’s staff party. “It will take a few days to realize what’s going on. I never dreamed of winning a Grand Slam, it wasn’t part of my career plan, my level, and obviously it happened so fast, these two weeks.

“Today before the match, I didn’t think I was going to win it, even though when I go on court I play to give my all, to try to win.”

And you thought there wasn’t going to be any drama Sunday night in Rod Laver Arena, that the great Pete Sampras would be on hand to hand the trophy to the man who had just tied his total of 14 Grand Slam titles.

It was supposed to be a rather routine victory for the world No. 1 over a man who had failed to win a set from him in their 12 previous meetings.

Then, a twist of fate intervened – what may eventually be known as Nadal’s Aussie curse.

He said he felt the issue with his back as early as the warmup. Early in the second set, he called for the trainer and went off court for a medical timeout. When he returned, he was at half-speed.

Nadal stayed the course and finished the match against his good friend, as he did that quarterfinal a few years ago against countryman David Ferrer.

But at that point, the only player who was going to defeat Wawrinka was Wawrinka himself.

It could have happened. In a nutshell, Stan lost his … stuff.

He barked at respected chair umpire Carlos Ramos when Nadal left the court, insisting he had a right to know what the injury was. He kicked up enough of a fuss (and there are enough Nadal non-fans out there who have been suspicious in the past of some of his medical timeouts) that when Nadal returned some seven minutes later, many in the capacity crowd at Rod Laver Arena booed him.

Nadalsad

After that, Nadal managed to squeak out the third set as some pain medication must have kicked in a little bit.

“I fighted.  I tried to produce that opportunity, but was a lot to win a set. … But win two more sets with that situation, you know, at the end you are playing against a top player, an opponent that will not miss,” Nadal said. “The only way to win for me was mistakes from the opponent because I was serving too slow and too predictable.  I was surviving because he was having mistakes on the return.”

Meanwhile, Wawrinka was creating his own brand of self-inflicted pain.

The trophy was so close, the opponent was a shadow of himself, that Grand Slam title Wawrinka probably thought he would never, ever win was right there and … his brain exploded.

“It was clear he wasn’t at his best, and all I had to do was play okay. But in the third I got caught in a bad rhythm, and he kept his concentration on his serve,” Wawrinka said. “In the fourth set I stopped hoping that he would miss; I tried to be more aggressive and go after the points, and not hope that he would miss easy balls.”

The crowd’s reaction was pretty unfair to Nadal, who quite clearly had an issue.  But, in the end, the notion that Wawrinka’s maiden Slam win will find an asterisk attached to is even more unfair, because his play in the first set was simply spectacular.

Ultimately, it was a microcosm of Wawrinka’s career in a nutshell. He showed his talent, his ability to go toe-to-toe with the beat, early on. Then, the doubts creeped in, as they so often have. The belief wavered, despite all the tremendous strides Wawrinka has made in the last six months to a year in that department with coach Magnus Norman.

In the end, though, he pulled it together.

When he finally had an opportunity to serve it out, after undoubtedly the most stressful 139 minutes of his working life, it’s entirely possible his blood pressure had returned to something resembling normalcy.

To add up what Wawrinka has accomplished in this fortnight takes a lot of keystrokes.

Having failed to even win a set against Nadal in 12 previous tries, he not only won a set, but three.

He defeated Novak Djokovic two of the first three times they met – but had lost the last 14 straight, including a couple of major, major heartbreakers last year here, and last summer at the U.S. Open. But he defeated him in this tournament.

He’s the first player to defeat the No. 1 and No.2 players in the world in a Grand Slam. He’s also the first player to defeat a world No. 1 to win their maiden Slam.

Wawrinka moves from No. 8 to No. 3 in the world with the title. And he passes countryman Roger Federer, who has been the Swiss No. 2 since time immemorial, who drops to No. 8.

“Being the Swiss No. 1 is directly related to Roger, and that’s just a number. It represents absolutely nothing. Roger is the best player of all time, and a friend on top of that, so I will always feel like I’m behind him,” Wawrinka said. “But being No. 3, I just don’t understand it. I’ll have to look at it tomorrow. It’s mind-blowing to think that I’m just behind Nadal and Djokovic tomorrow. But if I’m there, it’s because I deserve it.”

Nadal’s run of bad luck at the Australian Open, a tournament he has only won once (in 2009, vs. Federer in the final) continues.

In 2006, he withdrew with a foot injury. In 2010, he retired against Andy Murray with a knee injury. In 2011, he finished the match against Ferrer but was hobbled by a hamstring injury suffered early on. In 2013, he didn’t play because of his knee again. And now, this.

“It’s a tournament that I really had some troubles physically in my career and is something that is painful for me.  But that’s part of life.  That’s part of sport.  Is not the end of the world.  Is just another tough moment.  Is not the first,” Nadal said. “I feel very lucky that I was able to enjoy much more happy moments than tough moments.”

 

 

 

 

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