We have a new Swiss World No. 3. After Roger Federer served at this position for the better part of two years, 31-year-old Stanislas Wawrinka – also enduringly known as ‘Stan the Man’ or ‘Stanimal’ – forever in the shadows of his compatriot, is now solely the best Swiss player in the world, and one of the top three players in the planet.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps the way 2016 has gone for him, it is surprising, but then again, this isn’t a player that thrives on consistency or momentum – unlike the ‘Big 4’ of the era. Exactly why, as he pointed out, he rightfully doesn’t make it the ‘Big 5’.
Here’s why: This is only his 15th singles title of his career, as compared to Andy Murray’s 39. Murray can be considered his closest in the Big 4, because they’ve now both won three majors. Murray has won two single Olympic gold medals, and has made 11 Grand Slam finals, winning only three of them. In contrast, Stan has made just three, and has won all of them. He has won the Australian Open, a title that has eluded Murray despite him reaching five separate finals.
Yet, the beauty of Stan is that he isn’t as good as the others, and yet he is better than them on his day – which often just comes once or twice a year. He can outhit anybody in the planet, as proven by his gritty 4-set victory over an inspiring Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinal at Flushing Meadows.
His US Open victory against Novak Djokovic at his peak will rank alongside his stunning French Open win in 2015. He has now defeated Djokovic in prime form twice in two Grand Slam finals, despite winning just five of their 24 battles overall – something that even a resurgent Federer and a top-form Murray can’t boast of in recent history.
His first Slam win was against an injured Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final; many suspected he wouldn’t win another one again. But the way he has had Djokovic’s number in the big finals is something that was perhaps needed for this era. Djokovic has been running away with it for a few years now, and there has been nobody to stop him. Even Federer was stopped by Nadal, and Nadal by Djokovic. The Serb No. 1 has occasionally been stopped by Murray, but he had made eight of the last nine Grand Slam finals, winning seven of them. Every champion needs a sputter, and Djokovic’s sputter now has evolved into a fascinating rivalry with the ‘other’ Swiss player. It may look one-sided on paper, but Wawrinka leads 3-2 in Slam matches. If he goes deep into the draw, he is perhaps now the most feared player, especially when he hasn’t looked like winning anything.
Take this US Open tournament for example: He was down match point to Brit Dan Evans in the third round. A forehand volley and tiebreak later, Wawrinka had somehow rescued his season. He was down a set repeatedly to players – to Kei Nishikori in the semis, to Djokovic in the final, but always found the fitness and power to overwhelm his opponents into submission. His booming groundstrokes have now broken Nole twice in two years, though he finds winning against Murray, Federer and Nadal far tougher. He spent twice as much time as Djokovic on court in the tournament, and it showed, given the way he was hitting the ball in the final. This doesn’t mean that there is anyone still remotely close to Djokovic in world tennis, but at least he is now made to feel how he made Nadal and Federer feel on the big days. A majority of his 12 Slams have come after winning against those two and Murray in the finals – he has well and truly earned his status as a legend already – but his record against Wawrinka will feel hollow, given that he should have now been sitting pretty on 14 Grand Slam titles IF everything had gone on form.
But with Wawrinka, nothing is preordained. Don’t be surprised if he crashes out in first rounds for the rest of the season. He will come out of nowhere, when everyone least expects it, and the ghost of Marat Safin will be reincarnated again. And he always does it with what seems like a runny red nose and a face that suggests he hasn’t slept too often; looking tired is a ruse, or perhaps just part of who he is. When he points to his head at the end of a victory, indicating mental toughness, it is all the more remarkable, given that he was mentally fragile for 90 percent of his career.
Here are some compelling stats:
100 – success rate in grand slam finals, in perhaps tennis’s greatest era.
3 – highest ranking in his career.
3 – only the third man to win more than one slam after turning 30.
3 – number of Slams he has won after coach Magnus Norman has come on board.
3 – number of times he has beaten World No. 1 players in Slam finals.
11 – number of finals in a row he has won since 2013.
13 – number of sets he has played in Grand Slam final matches.
7 – number of five-set matches he has played against Djokovic.
4 – number of Chennai Open titles he has won.
0 – number of time he has gone past the quarterfinal of Wimbledon, the only Slam he is yet to excel at.