How can you not love the three words that describe Magnus Norman’s Tennis Academy -- good to great? Surely, isn’t that what we all hope for – the chance to soar from the pack towards excellence?
Thursday morning, there was Norman on Court 4 at Roland Garros, feeding balls out of a small hopper, looking as patient and kindly engaged as an instructor at a Saturday clinic. Here came one to the forehand. Then to the backhand. Another to the forehand. Then the backhand.
The man hitting was Stan Wawrinka. He was clad in an all-black outfit, yet another anti-fashion fashion statement from the man who won this title two years ago wearing shorts studded with pink diamonds and diagonal stripes that conjured up an early ‘70s pajama party. One wonders if dressing in such odd, theoretically garish or subdued garb is Wawrinka’s way of rebelling against the seemingly innate elegance of Roger Federer, a man who looks stylish in a gray T-shirt and sweatpants.
Interesting also how Wawrinka’s signature shot, his incredibly powerful, lashing topspin backhand, is the stroke that until this year has often been Federer’s undoing versus such rivals as Rafael Nadal.
But we must assert: Federer is absent from Roland Garros for the second straight year. Come to think of it, the man who beat Federer the last time he played here was none other than Wawrinka, Stan shoving Roger off the court in a straight-set quarterfinal.
So enough with you, Roger, at least until Wimbledon. Wawrinka’s the Swiss man in contention, in the semis for the third straight year at Roland Garros – and without the loss of a set. True to form, he has done so quietly, generating little of the fanfare around his fellow semifinalists – the resurgent Rafael Nadal, the ascendant Dominic Thiem and, his opponent, the form-searching Andy Murray (who beat Wawrinka at the same stage last year at Roland Garros).
In Wednesday’s quarterfinal, against 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic, Wawrinka was in complete control, pummeling Cilic 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. His match statistics were superb: 25 winners to only 17 unforced errors, six of nine on break points and, most impressively, Wawrinka won 79 percent of his second serve points (north of 50 is a desired number).
To think that just over three years ago, heading into the 2013 US Open, Wawrinka had yet to reach a Grand Slam semi. He was 28 then, quite close to the age when a player starts looking more to the end than the start. But beginning with that final run in ’13, Wawrinka has picked up a major a year.
If we wish to exonerate ourselves from our spot in life, it’s comforting to chalk up the success of others to their innate talent and our lack thereof. In other words, the gods gave to some, but not to others. But peel the orange a little differently and the matter of effort enters the picture. This is where players like Wawrinka bring their own special brand of genius; if not necessarily as swoon-generating as a Federer, then inspirational in another way.
“Yeah, I suppose sometimes it is a little tough,” Wawrinka said about the ups and downs of a tennis player’s career. “The thing is, I never give up. I never give up training, for example. I work hard. I try to do what's right. I work with my team. I listen to my team members. And sometimes I lose. Your confidence goes down, and then you have to work hard again to rebuild your confidence.”
Norman continued to feed. Wawrinka struck, one ball after another, his shots eventually crackling loudly. “Talent?” Billie Jean King once asked. “Talent? Let me tell you something: Persistence is a talent.”
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