By Jane Voigt
Stan Wawrinka’s reaction was subdued. He looked over at his player’s box where family and coaches sat, closed his eyes and raised his arms in victory. It was over. He had won his first U.S. Open.
Had we’d seen Wawrinka five minutes prior to his entrance onto Arthur Ashe Stadium doubts would’ve replaced hopes of topping Novak Djokovic: his opponent for the day, his friend and the dominant number one whose trophy case displayed a healthy 12 Grand Slams. Yet in the darkened tunnel that leads to the biggest stage of tennis, Wawrinka broke down in tears as he spoke with Coach Magnus Norman.
“I was really nervous, like never be before,” Wawrinka said, according to The New York Times. “I was completely shaking.”
Leftovers of that emotional encounter were strewn across the court in the opening set. Djokovic sprinted to a two-break lead, leaving his friend to fend for himself, to figure out the riddle that is Djokovic who gets to everything and forces courage to erupt from the depths of opponents before the dominant number one’s facade cracks.
As if to say not so fast, Wawrinka found that entry after a lengthy baseline rally. It settled his anxious mind and heart and playing arm. For many, like Wawrinka’s ‘big brother’ Roger Federer, rhythm is the elixir, a key component that, like meditation, allows the mind to forge ahead no matter the chatter it sends as a distraction.
The set did not go completely the way Wawrinka wanted. He lost the tiebreak and all reasonable prospects of winning the match. Only once had Djokovic lost a final after losing the first set: Roland Garros, 2015. Wawrinka was across the net that day, the same guy who could not be trusted to cave on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Had Wawrinka won that tiebreak the championship match night have ended in three sets. But more was demanded in advance of sweet victory, in advance of winning this U.S. Open and his third Grand Slam all of which required the 31-year-old to conquer Djokovic on the way to trophies, big paychecks and deserved recognition from those who had labeled him a head case.
But that was before Roland Garros, 2015, and after he had tattooed the words of Irish poet Samuel Beckett on his left forearm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
“It’s how I see life and tennis,” Wawrinka told USA Today then. “The meaning of the quote doesn’t change no matter how well you do. There is always disappointment, heartache. You are losing almost every tournament. You need to just accept it and be positive because you are going to lose and fail. We’re not all Nadal or Djokovic, who can win most tournaments.”
The number-three seed battled his demons yesterday, yet persevered in spite of them, in spite of two medical time outs taken in the fourth set by his opponent for bloodied toes and who really knows what, the timing of which was called into question by many and most prominently Patrick McEnroe, in the booth for ESPN.
“Break point and another example of the abuse of rules,” McEnroe stated emphatically.
“He could have done it while he was still serving,” Wawrinka said to the chair umpire, as Djokovic took his first time out on Stan’s serve, and up 3-1.
“Sorry man,” Djokovic yelled, along the sideline as trainers taped and re-taped his toes. “I just couldn’t stand it. Sorry man.”
The adjustment for Stan came quickly. He’d seen Novak antics, the drama that comes with Djokovic. Ones, like this one, that seemed to purposefully disturb Stan’s momentum.
“No matter. Try again.” The verse was relevant.
At 5-3, four points from victory, the loneliest four points in a tennis player’s existence, Stan lagged, 15-30, deuce and finally his first championship point. Fans filled every molecule of air inside that mammoth stadium with support, excitement, the strain of having to wait to fully appreciate the outcome none of them would know until the second championship point.
Then … uproarious approval.
“You were more courageous,” Djokovic told his friend, during the awards ceremony. “He was tougher mentally.”
Tough for Wawrinka was his third-round match against Great Britains’ Dan Evans, too, where the Swiss saved a match point. To live again. To win his 11th consecutive final with this Open. To do what not even Federer had done … beaten Novak Djokovic twice in a Grand Slam final.
Wawrinka had not defeated a top-ten player all year until yesterday. Now, he is within one of a career Grand Slam. Only Wimbledon has yet to be conquered.
“I don’t know what’s happening right now,” Stan said on court. “First, for friendship. [I] want to congratulate you [Novak] for all that you’ve done for tennis.”
Wawrinka is not considered a member of the Big Four — Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Andy Murray. However he and Murray each have won three Grand Slams.
Maybe the standards for entry into the Big Four should be examined.
Maybe what they should examine is Wawrinka’s bounce-back rate. He excelled in that category yesterday, winning 60% of his break points compared to 18% won by Djokovic. In the opening set, it was a 134 MPH second serve that sent it to a tiebreak. In the second, Stan raced off to a 4-1 lead only to see it eaten away by Djokovic’s defense until Stan broke to win it. In the third, Wawrinka again lead … initially. Intuitive play resounded from his racquet, as Novak’s attitude and painful toe ground away at any resolve. Again, Stan broke, coming from behind to win the set.
And in the last set, Wawrinka embraced the challenge … “No matter. Try again.”
The scoreline: 6-7(1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, in just under four hours.
“I came here without expecting to win, but every time I stepped on court I tried to win. There was so much emotion with the crowd. I played better after each match.”
If that’s the case, please expect more from this champion. Getting better suits Stan.