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Michael Steinberger: Wawrinka - Tennis’s Never-Say-Never Guy

You know that State Farm commercial, the one in which the guy says he’s never getting married, is never having kids, is never moving to the suburbs, and so forth? Maybe I’ve got too much tennis on the brain, but every time I see that ad, I think of Stan Wawrinka. With Wawrinka, things that we swore would never happen keep happening. For most of the Swiss veteran’s career, no one thought he’d win a major.

Sure, he was talented, but he seemed too brittle, too overshadowed by his compatriot Roger Federer to ever punch through at a major. When Wawrinka surprised himself and the skeptics by capturing the Australian Open three years ago, everyone figured it was a one-and-done thing and that he’d never win another major. When he won the 2015 French Open, most of us assumed he’d been miraculously gifted a second pouch of fairy dust and that he would absolutely, positively never win a third slam. And then he won the US Open this past September. The moral of the story? It is a really bad idea to use the word “never” in the same sentence with the words “Stan Wawrinka.”

But even though the 31-year-old Wawrinka has won more majors in the last three years than Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray combined and is just one title shy of a career slam, there remains an aura of improbability about him. Part of it is that he is so self-effacing. As was the case when he triumphed in Melbourne and in Paris, his victory celebration in New York was strikingly muted, as if he still regarded himself as an interloper, a party crasher. Wawrinka demurs whenever it is suggested that the so-called Big Four has now become the Fab Five. “The Big Four, I’m really far from them,” he said after his victory in Flushing, noting that they’ve shown a level of consistency that he has not. That’s the other factor here. Although Wawrinka is virtually a lock these days in title matches—he’s played in 12 tournament finals since 2014 and has won 11 of them—he still struggles with week-in, week-out focus. He reached the semifinals in Brisbane last week, and there’s every reason to think he’ll make a deep run at the Australian, which kicks off Monday. But beyond that, it is hard to say. With Wawrinka, you never quite know what you are going to get.

Is that a problem? It depends on how you want to look at it. If single-minded, sustained excellence is what you value in a player, then Stan the Man is not your man. But I happen to think that his recent success has been a godsend for tennis. As enthralling as the Big Four have been, they’d also rendered the men’s game numbingly predictable. You know the numbers; there’s no need to recite them here. In the last three years, Wawrinka has given men’s tennis a sorely needed element of chaos and surprise. You might think of him as the Clark Kent of tennis, the mild-mannered everyman who periodically slips into a phone booth (you remember those things) and comes out Superman, muscling his way to a major title. For all his ups and downs, Wawrinka has made men’s tennis vastly more interesting in recent years than it might otherwise have been.

And despite his inconsistency, he has managed to put together a Hall of Fame career in an era in which just about everyone not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray has been left to fight over scraps. In addition to the three slams, Wawrinka has a Davis Cup win and an Olympic gold medal to his credit. If I had to name the 10 best men’s matches of the last decade, Wawrinka would figure in at least four of them—his fourth-round loss to Djokovic at the 2013 Australian, his quarterfinal win over him in Melbourne the following year, and his victories over Djokovic in the French and US Open finals. You may have noticed a theme—Djokovic is Wawrinka’s ideal foil, and vice-versa. What made those four matches so compelling was the contrast in styles. Djokovic, arguably the greatest defensive player the sport has ever known, was the matador. Wawrinka, with his bludgeoning, opportunistic baseline game, was the charging bull. The bull won three of the four matches, and in doing so showed that there is still a place for attacking play in this era of attritional tennis.

While the key to those victories was Wawrinka’s vastly improved forehand and his newfound self-belief, both of which can be credited in no small measure to his coach, Magnus Norman, it is his one-handed backhand that makes everyone swoon. Having written about the fate of the one-handed backhand and possessing one myself, I suppose I am biased, but I think that not only is Wawrinka’s backhand the single most sublime shot of this era, it is among the greatest shots in the history of the sport. But if Wawrinka hadn’t started winning majors, it is doubtful that I or anyone else would be talking about his backhand in quite such extravagant terms; more likely, we’d regard it as a brilliant weapon that was wasted on a player who lacked the chops to win slams. And up until recently, that last part appeared to be an accurate description of Wawrinka. Three years ago at this time, he was ranked eighth in the world, owned a grand total of five ATP titles, one more obscure than the next (Chennai twice, plus victories in Casablanca, Oeiras, and Umag), and seemed destined to be one of those peripheral figures who might cause a few thrills here and there but who would never win anything significant and would quickly be forgotten. Suffice it to say, things have changed.

Having won a major in each of the last three seasons, can Wawrinka now run the streak to four straight seasons? And more importantly, does he have any realistic hope of completing a career slam by winning Wimbledon? No question, he can win another major. His US Open victory seemed to take him to another level. Wawrinka saved a match point en route to a third- round win over Daniel Evans, beat a resurgent Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals and a very in-form Kei Nishikori in the semis, and then withstood a fearsome barrage from Djokovic in the final. The third set, in particular, featured some amazingly grueling tennis, as the world number one, who had a much easier route to the final, tried to break Wawrinka physically. Wawrinka absorbed the blows, took the third set after surrendering an early lead, and ultimately wore down Djokovic, which is something few have managed to do during the Serb’s ascendancy. So, yeah, Wawrinka is certainly capable of winning another Australian, French, or US Open.

Wimbledon is a tougher proposition. Grass is his weakest surface by far. The windup on his groundstrokes is a little too big, his blocked service return is not particularly effective, and he’s not a great volleyer. He tried to improve his grass court play last year by working with former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, but after struggling through his first-round match at Wimbledon against the American teenager Taylor Fritz, he was bounced in the second round by del Potro. He’s lost in the first round at the All-England Club five times and in the second round twice. His best showing was reaching the quarterfinals in 2014 and again the following year. To have even a faint hope of winning Wimbledon, Wawrinka would need a very friendly draw and probably also a couple of major upsets to further clear his path. But while a career slam seems unlikely, it is clear now that nothing can be ruled out when it comes to Wawrinka. He is tennis’s never-say-never guy.

Read more articles by Michael Steinberger

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