These are difficult questions to answer, but this much is certain: Wawrinka has earned every one of his high honors with top of the line performances against players of immense and enduring stature. First, he stopped Novak Djokovic 9-7 in the fifth set of an epic quarterfinal at the 2014 Australian Open, and then went on to claim that crown over Rafael Nadal, denying the Spaniard the opportunity to win all four majors at least twice. No one in the Open Era has realized that feat in the men’s game. In 2015, Wawrinka took apart Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, and later secured that title by stopping Djokovic, preventing the Serbian from achieving a career Grand Slam at the time. And now he has pulled off a third Grand Slam tournament championship by upsetting Djokovic again, outlasting the Serbian 6-7(1),6-4, 7-5, 6-3 for the U.S. Open title.
For Wawrinka, that was clearly no mean feat. It was his eleventh triumph in a row when contesting a final, and that includes the three Grand Slam titles he has amassed. He is the only player out there competing on the ATP World Tour now who has won two or more majors after turning 30. Only four other competitors have done that in the Open Era: Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall managed it four times, while Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors got it done twice. But all of those players had acquired the habit of coming through when it mattered much earlier, in their teens and twenties. Wawrinka has truly come of age in his thirties. At 31, he is the oldest U.S. Open champion since Rosewall was victorious at Forest Hills in 1970. That is extraordinary stuff.
Let’s consider something else: Djokovic has the best winning percentage of any player in the Open Era among the men after winning the opening set of a match. He had not met that fate all year long. And yet, Wawrinka has now rallied forthrightly from a set down thrice against Djokovic at the majors. To say the least, that is laudatory. It is evidence of a striking spirit that he displays in many of his majors, and a clear sign that he is not intimidated by the world No. 1 on the stages of consequence.
The final was riveting in many ways. Djokovic came out of the gates playing his best tennis of the tournament. He was somewhat tense in the opening game, holding on from 15-30. But he broke Wawrinka with outstanding returning in the second game after the Swiss was ahead 40-15. The depth and crispness of those returns was superb. He collected four points in a row to reach 2-0, rushing Wawrinka into a netted backhand on break point. Djokovic was soaring now, holding at love for 3-0, opening and closing that game with aces, serving both out wide.
After Wawrinka held in the fourth game, Djokovic advanced to 4-1, holding at 15 with authority. Wawrinka was releasing clusters of errant forehands, driving it wildly out of court, giving away too many points off that side. He was also having trouble finding his range off his renowned backhand. Djokovic had Wawrinka down 0-30 in the sixth game, and was looking entirely capable of getting the insurance break and sealing the set swiftly. He missed a couple of second serve returns, and Wawrinka took a 40-30 lead. But Djokovic still garnered a break point for 5-1, making an impressive first serve return. Wawrinka laced a backhand at a sharp angle, coaxing Djokovic into a sliced backhand error. Opportunity gone. Wawrinka held on for 2-4.
Djokovic held at love for 5-2, and then pushed Wawrinka into another 15-40 bind. It was double set point for the Serbian. Wawrinka swung a slice serve wide in the deuce court that Djokovic could not handle on the return, and then the Serbian missed a high backhand return off a second serve kicker. Wawrinka held on again from another precarious position, forcing Djokovic to serve out the set at 5-3. The favorite played that game far too tentatively, falling behind 0-40, rallying to 30-40, but then double faulting. He gambled, going for a 109 MPH second serve, sending it into the net.
Wawrinka was improbably back on serve. He held for 5-5. Both players stayed on serve to set up a tie-break. Wawrinka trailed 0-2 but then prevailed in the point of the match. He played a brilliant half volley short crosscourt. Djokovic chased it down, angling a forehand crosscourt pass sharply that seemed to have the Swiss beaten. Wawrinka somehow steered a forehand half volley deep down the line, forcing the Serbian to retreat to the baseline. Djokovic lofted a lob off the backhand, and Wawrinka answered with a high backhand touch volley. Djokovic scampered forward and got it back, but Wawrinka punched a forehand volley winner past the incoming Serbian.
The crowd was delirious after that exchange, applauding both players thunderously. But from that 2-1 juncture, Djokovic swept five points in a row, starting with a patented backhand passing shot down the line for a winner. The world No. 1 took the set seven points to one in the tie-break, and I assumed that Wawrinka would be discouraged after working so hard to get back into the set, only to lose it in the end. After all, Djokovic had a career record of 51-0 at the Open after winning the opening set.
Wawrinka could have cared less about that. He commenced the second set with discipline and energy. Djokovic wasted a 40-15 lead in the fourth game, making a backhand unforced error, and double faulting twice. At break point, Wawrinka struck gold with a backhand down the line winner, and that put him ahead 3-1. In the fifth game, Wawrinka was behind 0-40. Djokovic erred badly off the backhand. Wawrinka followed with four first serves in a row, closing out that game with a sizzling inside out forehand winner. It was 4-1 for the Swiss.
And yet, the set was far from over. Djokovic held at love for 2-4. In the seventh game, Djokovic clipped the edge of the sideline with a backhand crosscourt winner at 30-30 and then produced a heavy topspin forehand crosscourt, luring Wawrinka into a wildly errant crosscourt forehand. They were back on serve. Djokovic held at love to make it 4-4. Wawrinka answered with a love hold of his own.
And so Djokovic was serving at 4-5. A surprising unforced error off the backhand put the Serbian behind 15-30. Wawrinka crushed a forehand winner down the line for 15-40. Djokovic saved one set point, but, at 30-40, he took a solid yet unthreatening return from Wawrinka and sent it wide off the forehand. Wawrinka took the set 6-4. It was one set all. In the opening game of the third, Djokovic masterfully prevailed in a 28 stroke rally for 15-30 and Wawrinka dropped the next point with a backhand unprovoked mistake long.
Djokovic was thus poised to gain an immediate break at the start of the third set and reestablish the momentum in his favor. He failed to do that. Wawrinka fortunately caught the edge of the line with a second serve that was unmanageable for Djokovic and then took a let cord backhand from Djokovic and drove it impeccably down the line for a winner. Two break points were gone for Djokovic, but he had one more later in the game. Wawrinka’s backhand down the line caught Djokovic slightly off guard. The Serbian drove a forehand crosscourt long. Wawrinka closed out that game with an ace out wide at 131 MPH. He was up 1-0 in the third.
Djokovic had a 30-0 lead in the second game of that third set, but Wawrinka connected with a backhand winner down the line. Djokovic was guilty of an unforced error off the backhand, and then did not do enough with a backhand volley down the line, allowing Wawrinka to pass him easily down the line. At break point down, Djokovic demonstrated that he was insecure, serving-and-volleying, making a poor first volley and then missing a subsequent backhand volley. Wawrinka had moved to 2-0.
In the third game, Wawrinka stood at 30-40 but he rescued himself yet again with a penetrating backhand crosscourt. Wawrinka soon held on for 3-0. Djokovic was plainly disconcerted to be in that plight. In the fourth game, he was dangerously perched at 0-30 after twice playing overheads too timidly, eventually losing the point with a forehand unforced error. But he redeemed himself with an impressive overhead winner behind Wawrinka for 30-30 and held on for 1-3. That tough stand in the crunch served Djokovic exceedingly well.
With Wawrinka serving in the fifth game, the burly Swiss was up 40-15 but Djokovic broke him after three deuces with a deep backhand down the line drawing a forehand mistake from Wawrinka. Djokovic then held at 30. The match was two hours and 26 minutes old and was locked at one set all, and back on serve at 3-3 in the third. Wawrinka held on at 30 for 4-3, but unconvincingly. Flattening out his forehand more, looking to be more aggressive, sensing he might be able to deflate an opponent who had been sagging, Djokovic held at 15 for 4-4.
Three times in the ninth game, Djokovic pushed Wawrinka to deuce. But he could not quite get himself in a position to break. His best chance was on the first of those deuces when he unleashed an excellent forehand return that set up an easy forehand. Djokovic netted that critical down the line shot. Wawrinka fought on steadfastly to 5-4 but Djokovic answered firmly with a love hold for 5-5. He was playing the better brand of tennis at this stage. In the eleventh game, Wawrinka was down 15-30 and surely his fans held their collective breath when he went for an inside in forehand winner. It landed safely in the corner for a winner. From 30-30, Djokovic sent first a backhand and then a forehand into the net tape. Wawrinka had escaped again, holding on for 6-5.
Djokovic went to 30-0 in the twelfth game, two points away from a tie-break. But he missed one of his trademark backhands down the line, hitting it wide. Wawrinka released a forehand down the line winner for 30-30 but Djokovic got to 40-30. Yet Wawrinka made a fine return that rushed Djokovic into an error. The Swiss got away with a miss-hit shot on the next point and then Djokovic drove a two-hander down the line that was long. Now Wawrinka went for a scorching flat forehand down the line, and Djokovic sliced a backhand crosscourt wide. After being close to the brink in the latter part of the set, Wawrinka had come through in the clutch. He won the set 7-5 and took a two sets to one lead.
Wawrinka commenced the fourth set persuasively, holding at 15 for 1-0. In the second game, Djokovic started flexing his leg. He would later need the trainer to treat his bleeding toenails. Wawrinka’s exquisite backhand down the line winner took him to break point and Djokovic feebly missed a forehand down the line into the net. Wawrinka was closing in on the title, leading 2-0 in the fourth set. He served two aces in a love game to make it 3-0. Djokovic was clearly preoccupied with his ailment but battling hard nonetheless. He served at 0-3, 30-40 after double faulting but held on after three deuces. Then the trainer came out to work on the Serbian’s bleeding toes during a medical timeout.
Serving at 3-1 after the long delay, Wawrinka struggled but saved three more break points, holding on with a forehand inside in winner to make it 4-1. Djokovic pridefully held at love for 2-4 before Wawrinka retaliated with a love hold of his own for 5-2. Now the trainer came back again for Djokovic. Djokovic made one last push, holding at 15 in the eighth game.
Unsurprisingly, Wawrinka felt considerable tension as he served for the match at 5-3, falling behind 0-30. He took the next three points but then Djokovic wiped away a match point against him with a solid backhand down the line coaxing an error from the Swiss. Wawrinka responded beautifully, pulling Djokovic out of position, moving forward for a delicate drop volley winner from on top of the net. On his second match point, Wawrinka finished his task as Djokovic missed a two-hander long. In three hours and 55 minutes, Wawrinka had raised his record in Grand Slam tournament finals to 3-0, halting Djokovic 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3.
Wawrinka won that contest deservedly. Djokovic met misfortune with the pain he experienced in his feet during the fourth set, but the fact remains that Wawrinka took the pivotal third set and that was a key to the outcome. Remarkably, Wawrinka won 144 points in the match and Djokovic only one less at 143. That statistic is absolute proof that Djokovic wasted too many openings, converting only 3 of 17 break points. He also lost some critical service games at 4-5 in the second set and 5-6 in the third that could have been avoided. To be sure, Djokovic was found wanting on the big points and it cost him the match.
But the fact remains that Wawrinka was magnificent under pressure. He came through remarkably well when it counted and deserved his triumph wholeheartedly. Wawrinka beat Djokovic differently than he did at Roland Garros in the spring of 2015. On this late summer afternoon and evening, he had bursts of brilliance and his ground game improved markedly after the first set. But even more impressive was his propensity to out-duel Djokovic in long exchanges. He did so by being everlastingly patient, probing with the sliced backhand, taking something off his forehand when necessary and maintaining his composure at all times. He was so purposeful and solid when it counted that Djokovic was too often guilty of injuring himself with errant shots. That was the product of Wawrinka’s industriousness.
For Djokovic, the loss is costly. He missed out on a chance to garner his 13th major, and now his record in major finals drops to 12-9. After winning the season’s first two majors he closed the Grand Slam season with a debilitating loss against a player he had beaten in 19 of 23 previous head to head clashes.
The fact remains that Wawrinka has never lost yet in a final at a Grand Slam event, and now he joins an elite list of players among the men in the Open Era who have won three of the four majors. Only ten other players have done it, and they are Arthur Ashe, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connros, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Pete Sampras, Guillermo Vilas and Mats Wilander. Only a few years ago, who would have believed that Wawrinka would find himself among such luminaries?
In the third round of this U.S. Open, Wawrinka was down match point against Great Britain’s Daniel Evans in a fourth set tie-break, but he saved himself there and won in five. Not many men have come from match point down in the course of this tournament to win it all. Boris Becker did it in 1989, Sampras in 1996, Andy Roddick in 2003 and Djokovic was the last in 2011. Wawrinka would defeat 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro and the 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori just to set up his appointment with Djokovic, and then he played through cramps, pain and anxiety to win the last major of 2016. No one can say that he is not a worthy champion.