Every great tennis player has over the course of their career, found a tormentor. A rival who occasionally stands in the path of greatness, history or success. Edberg had Becker. Sampras had Agassi. Federer has had Nadal for much of his career, and Nadal in turn has had Djokovic. With Stanilas Wawrinka’s victory over Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final, it is clear that he is established himself as Novak Djokovic’s tormentor in chief.
This probably won’t come as a surprise to the avid tennis analyst. Since a certain Australian Open five setter in 2012, Wawrinka and Djokovic have played some brilliant matches at the Grand Slam level. Novak famously won that match with a backhand passing shot that was befitting of the match’s extraordinarily high shot making standards. However, Wawrinka was just getting warmed up. Famous for being a headcase, the rest of the world thought they’d seen – as is the case with one Gael Monfils – a glimpse of what could have been. Little did we know, that we were witnessing a foreboding of what was to come.
Fast forward over four years later, and Wawrinka is a three time major champion – the same number Andy Murray has. He’s beaten the current world number #1 to win each of his majors and he has defeated Novak Djokovic en-route to each title. The most painful of those defeats probably came last year. Wawrinka was not only the difference between Djokovic and career grand slam (that was finally achieved this year), but he was also the difference between Djokovic and a calendar slam. It is hard to imagine Djokovic producing a season like 2015 again. While Djokovic has a sizable head to head against the Swiss, it is when those defeats have come, that matter.
If you are wondering what makes Stan so deadly against Djokovic, yesterday’s match has all the answers. Djokovic started this match, dialed in. He was hitting crisply off of both wings and playing well within the supreme abilities of his famed transition game. That form took him to a 5 – 2 first set lead. I remember watching the match unfold and getting a sense that I was waiting for something to happen. I didn’t have to wait too long. Wawrinka, who had been misfiring early on, suddenly found his range. In the blink of an eye, it was five all and even though Djokovic was able to grind his way to and successfully through a first set tie break, I knew that Wawrinka had the match on his racket. He always has.
This U.S Open has been a bit of a resurgence ground for attacking tennis and it was only fitting that it would be on full display again in the finals. By the time the second Set rolled around, it was clear that this could very well be Circa French Open 2015, all over again. Wawrinka brings an unbelievable amount of power and weight to a rally. When he is in the mood, his shots can look and apparently feel like miniature spherical juggernauts. They can’t be stopped. That has to be demoralizing, even to a player with the caliber of defensive skills that Djokovic possesses. What Wawrinka does with his ground strokes, feels eerily similar to what Sampras used to do with his serve. They both take the racket out of the opponent’s hand, and they do it consistently. By the final set, that consistent pressure had visibly taken its toll on Djokovic. Medical timeouts aside, Wawrinka’s firepower had taken a psychological toll on Djokovic. His shoulders slumped. He wore defeatist facial expressions and laughed nonchalantly at the flurry of winners that flew by him. This was Circa French Open 2015. The Serbinator was being humbled, again.
The biggest difference between the Wawrinka we see today, and the Wawrinka of old has been the lack of fear he shows. He admitted to being nervous before the match. That translated to a slow start, but I don’t think he was afraid. For a man who has failed and failed better so many times before, he now knows how to access the full repertoire of his game in order to succeed. As the match slowly wore on, it was Djokovic who looked like a defeated great struggling to find answers. The more he looked, the less he found and the more panicked he appeared. That’s new territory for the Serb these days. There’s a reservoir he cannot access anymore and I wonder if it left him the moment he accomplished the career long dream of winning the French Open. I thought the desire would resurface during the Olympics, but it didn’t and let’s face it, this U.S Open was not filled with Djokovic running the table. He experienced a bizarre run of opponent retirements and withdrawals. His semi-final opponent? A semi interested Monfils. That might have affected his form going into a final against an opponent like Wawrinka. Maybe. However that wasn’t the situation at Wimbledon.
When he is in the mood, his shots can look and apparently feel like miniature spherical juggernauts. They can’t be stopped.
For Wawrinka, it is another achievement notched up and added to the career belt. He has now won the Australian Open, The French Open, and The U.S Open in that order. Considering that he has been as far as the Semis, victory at the All England Club, remains a possibility. As for Djokovic, he enters the final months of the season with a lot of questions surrounding him. For a man who has defined his career by setting goals and targets, what becomes his target now? Catching Nadal/Sampras? Catching Federer? Djokovic has always been a player who needs to define why he should bring his best to the table. It might be time for him to do so again.