Earlier this week in Indian Wells, Stan Wawrinka was asked how he had managed to win two straight razor-close, brilliantly-played matches, each in a third-set tiebreaker.
“I think it’s a little bit experience,” Wawrinka said, “a little bit the confidence, a little bit thinking about what you want to do and just do it.”
Anyone who has seen Wawrinka respond to a question at a press conference could imagine him leaning forward and shrugging his shoulders as he answered this one, as if to say, “It’s really not all that complicated.”
These days, after 14 years on tour, with three major titles under his belt and a career-high No. 3 ranking, winning seems less complicated than ever for Wawrinka. He’ll turn 32 at the end of this month, but he has shown no signs of age at all. So far this year he’s 11-3, has reached the semifinals at the Australian Open and has now made his first final in Indian Wells after 10 tries.
If anything, Wawrinka, who has only won one Masters title—and had never reached the final of one on hard courts before Saturday—looks like he’s just getting started. With each season, he does something he’s never done before, and seemed unlikely ever to do. In 2014, at 28, he won the Australian Open in his first Slam final. In 2015, at 30, he played the tennis of his life to upset Novak Djokovic and win his first French Open. And last summer he beat Djokovic again in his first U.S. Open final. Now, after a decade of frustration and mediocrity on the U.S. spring hard-court swing—Wawrinka had never been past the quarters in Indian Wells or Miami—he has suddenly decided that he can’t lose in the desert.
That’s the way Wawrinka gets some weeks. With his slugging style, he’ll always have his off days, but if he can wriggle through one of them, he’ll start to believe he can wriggle through all of them. In the fourth round on Tuesday, Yoshihito Nishioka served for the match twice, but Wawrinka pushed the third set to a tiebreaker, and Stan’s first-strike style makes him deadly in breakers. In his next match, he survived a spectacular ground-stroke barrage from Dominic Thiem, and eventually threaded his way through another deciding breaker. By Saturday, Wawrinka was at the peak of his confidence and his powers, as he dismissed Pablo Carreño Busta, 6-3, 6-2, in a little more than an hour.
By now, Stan has learned to recognize when he has an opportunity to do something new.
“In general, I try to stay focused with my game, with my game plan, and don’t give in anything,” Wawrinka said after his win over Thiem on Thursday. “I know also that’s when I play good tennis. So that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Yet despite his three major titles, and his underrated all-surface consistency—this allegedly erratic player has reached the quarters or better at nine of the last 12 Slams—Wawrinka remains tennis’ underestimated man. The Big Four has never become the Big Five; when draws are made at the majors, we look immediately to see where Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are before giving a casual glance in Stan’s direction. At Indian Wells last week, we all gazed in awe at the Quarter of Death, while Wawrinka made his quiet way through the top half of the brackets.
Stan, who spent the first decade of his career in relative obscurity, doesn’t mind.
“If I’m playing Stadium 1, Stadium 2, at the end of the day, I enjoy what I’m doing,” Wawrinka said. “I’m really happy with my career. I won three Grand Slams [the] last three years. I think it’s more than what I could expect.
“The most important is to enjoy what I do. And I enjoy a lot.”
How long will Wawrinka enjoy his newfound success at Indian Wells? On Sunday, he’ll face off against Federer. If Wawrinka remains underappreciated, that’s partially because of his fellow Swiss, who has always overshadowed him, both off the court and on it. Federer is 19-3 against his friend and countryman, and in January he ended what looked like another possible Slam run by Stan in Melbourne. In their semifinal, Federer won the first two sets, and Wawrinka came back to win the next two. Stan was on the verge of taking the lead in the fifth when Federer hit a change-of-pace backhand to save a break point, and the match turned back in his favor.
In that case, the older Swiss was one step—or thought—ahead of the younger. Can Wawrinka catch up with him in Indian Wells? Stan has his I’m-not-losing look, but will it work against Federer? He’s only had to face him once, in the quarterfinals at the 2015 French Open, in any of his major-title runs.
A win this time wouldn’t just give Wawrinka his first hard-court Masters title—it would also put him in the running for something else that most of us never thought possible for him: the No. 1 ranking. On Saturday, the current No. 1, Murray, pulled out of Miami with an elbow injury, and the current No. 2, Djokovic, sounded like he might have to do the same. One-thousand points would do a lot for either Swiss in the year-end race.
If Stan ever does become No. 1, we couldn’t underestimate him then, could we?
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