With Stan Wawrinka comes the new ‘big three’

In 2014, Stan Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam title after upsetting Novak Djokovic in a five-set quarterfinal at the Australian Open. In 2015, Wawrinka won his second major at the French Open by ambushing the Serb in a four-set final. In 2016, Wawrinka won his third major at Flushing Meadows, yet again victimising Djokovic. That’s a perfect three for three in Grand Slam finals.

Stan Wawrinka, the U.S. Open men's singles champion, poses with the trophy at the "Top of the Rock," in New York's Rockefeller Center. Wawrinka wore down Novak Djokovic 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 for his first U.S. Open title and third Grand Slam trophy overall.   -  AP

"Stan The Man” is printed in bold letters on a bright red T-shirt Stan Wawrinka wears. It’s time to replace his unimaginative nickname with “Big Match Stan.” Before Wawrinka wore out and broke down World No. 1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 in the U.S. Open final, Djokovic explained precisely why Wawrinka is so daunting.

“He’s a big match player. He loves to play on the big stage against big players, because that’s when he elevates his level of performance in his game. Just gets much better,” analysed Djokovic.

“He’s a very powerful, powerful player. Big serve. Probably the best, most effective one-handed backhand in the world now. You know, he can play it all. He has variety in his game. He can be very dangerous for everybody.”

For everybody. Especially for Djokovic. And especially on the biggest stages. In 2014, Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open after upsetting Djokovic in a five-set quarterfinal. In 2015, Wawrinka won his second major at the French Open by ambushing the Serb in a four-set final. In 2016, after the favoured Djokovic had captured six of the previous nine majors, Wawrinka won his third major at Flushing Meadows, yet again victimising Djokovic.

That’s a perfect three for three in Grand Slam finals. Wawrinka has also won his last 11 tournament finals. The Swiss had been overshadowed by his legendary compatriot Roger Federer for a decade. Like Djokovic, Federer knew how formidable a foe Wawrinka has been in the past three years and gave him a fitting moniker, “Stanimal,” a tribute to his rugged physique and brutishly aggressive style.

Wawrinka entered the U.S. Open after having a mediocre season in which he hadn’t beaten a top 10 player. And it almost got worse in the third round. There he staved off a match point against No. 64-ranked Dan Evans before surviving in five sets. Just as his career has blossomed slowly, his progress during the New York fortnight gradually accelerated. In the semifinals, the 185-pound Wawrinka increasingly overpowered the 163-pound Japanese, Kei Nishikori, to prevail 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.

In sharp contrast to Wawrinka's trajectory, Djokovic’s season started with a bang and flourished for five months. He won the Australian and French Opens and in between captured Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Rome. But winning the long-elusive and cherished French title drained him, and he was knocked out early at Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics. He was also beaten up physically from the grinding campaign, and a sore left wrist made him even consider skipping the U.S. Open. His right arm and both shoulders also bothered him during the tournament.

The tennis gods apparently decided to give Djokovic a much-welcomed break with a relatively easy draw. It got even easier when two opponents retired during matches and another defaulted. Entering the final, Djokovic had played only slightly more than half of the 18 hours Wawrinka had played. But sometimes the lack of matches, especially tough matches filled with pivotal points, can prove detrimental.

That may have been the case during the final because Djokovic shockingly converted only 3 of 17 break points. Djokovic came through in the clutch though in the first-set tiebreaker, which he took 7-1.

Just as he had done against Nishikori, the muscular Wawrinka started bullying the slender Djokovic with his stronger serve and bludgeoning groundstrokes. Djokovic was breathing audibly as he hit shots, while Wawrinka seemed barely tired.

After Wawrinka broke Djokovic’s serve to win the third set, Wawrinka didn’t fist pump and yell “C’mon,” as so many players do. Instead, he proudly pointed an index finger to his temple, his new trademark gesture to indicate his mental strength.

“Sometimes, I don’t find myself comfortable on the court, and I have to fight with myself,” Wawrinka explained. “So that’s what I’m focusing on here: to fight, to suffer, to accept to suffer, to accept the player in front of me is playing better. And that’s when I’m happy with myself and proud of myself when I stay strong with what I want to do.”

Nevertheless, Wawrinka did get angry that Djokovic, who was grabbing his legs and seemed to be suffering from leg cramps, asked for and was granted a medical timeout to get his toe blisters attended to when trailing 3-1 in the fourth set. (Timeouts can be taken only for an “acute medical condition that requires immediate attention.”)

Djokovic complained to the chair umpire, and Djokovic told Wawrinka, “Stan, sorry man, I couldn’t stand it.” Djokovic’s gamesmanship and the dubious medical timeout enraged ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe, who charged, “That was another example of a complete abuse of the rules, and the officials don’t have the guts to do anything about it.”

The six-minute break only postponed the inevitable. On the penultimate point of the 3-hour, 55-minute final, Wawrinka finished off a slugfest rally with a gentle tap volley winner. It epitomised the power advantage Wawrinka enjoyed for most of the match.

After the final, Djokovic, always a gracious loser, praised Wawrinka: “You were the more courageous player in the decisive moments…. He was the tougher player mentally.”

And yet the next day on the “Charlie Rose” program, Wawrinka confessed to breaking down in tears five minutes before the final while speaking to his coach, Magnus Norman. “I was feeling nervous from the time I woke up in the morning. I wasn’t feeling right. I was really stressed for the final. When I’m like that, most of the time I can get through this. When I arrive on the court, I’m focused on what I’m going to do in the match.”

Even the best players can suffer a crisis of confidence, but despite that wavering moment Wawrinka proved victorious. He now owns as many Grand Slam titles, three, as Andy Murray. The injured, 35-year-old Federer, who missed the U.S. Open, hasn’t won a major since the 2012 Wimbledon, and the declining Nadal hasn’t even reached a major semifinal since the 2014 French Open.

Let’s give Wawrinka his due. We now have a new “Big Three”: Djokovic, Murray, and “Big Match Stan.”

Kerber takes the title and No. 1 ranking

After Angelique Kerber won the last eight points of the U.S. Open final, the superlatives “amazing” and “incredible” punctuated her interview comments. They referred to her tournament, her team, her fans, and most of all, her breakthrough year.

 

No wonder. Nearly 28-years-old going into 2016, Kerber had only two semifinals and two quarterfinals on her Grand Slam resume. Though ranked No. 10 for the second straight year, the German veteran didn’t advance past the third round at a major in 2015. She was neither a rising young star nor a player with huge weapons typically needed to take prestigious titles.

So when Kerber upset Serena Williams, the grand dame of tennis, to capture the Australian Open back in January, pundits admitted, “We didn’t see this coming.” They would sing the same refrain less often as the season rolled on. Kerber reached the Wimbledon final and grabbed the silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She ascended to the World No. 1 ranking after Serena was upset by Karolina Pliskova in the U.S. Open semifinals. To remove any possible doubt that Kerber deserved the top spot, she overcame the power-hitting Pliskova 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in one of the most entertaining Grand Slam finals this century.

“When was the last time anyone not named Williams had a year like this?” marvelled all-time great Chris Evert, now an ESPN tennis analyst.

Indeed, Serena had won nine of the last 20 majors and ranked No. 1 for a record 186 weeks. For that record and also for the Open Era record of 22 major titles, the colourful queen was tied with the legendary Steffi Graf, Kerber’s compatriot. But Serena failed to eclipse either record during the Flushing Meadows fortnight.

How did Kerber transform herself from little more than a relentlessly effective counter-puncher to a two-time Grand Slam champion, Olympic medallist, and No. 1 player in eight months?

“We’ve always known Kerber has had the greatest defence in the world, but now she knows when to attack, and now she has more sting in her shots,” Evert explained. “But her attitude stands out (most) to me. This young lady used to be really negative. She carried bad points with her for so long. Now she’s more patient with herself.”

Kerber's mental game improved markedly after two early 2015 visits with Graf in Las Vegas. There she practised daily with her girlhood idol. “Steffi told her, ‘Trust yourself, believe in yourself, play more aggressively,’” Evert recalled. “Kerber is like a different person this year.”

Graf’s inspiration and advice paid off in the fluctuating final against Pliskova. Even though Kerber was a perfect 44-0 in matches after winning the first set this year, Pliskova had all the momentum early in the deciding set. When Pliskova broke serve to go ahead 2-1, Kerber bounced her racquet on the hard court in frustration. “When I was down a break in the third set, I told myself, ‘Believe in my game, stay positive, and go for my shots,’” Kerber said. She controlled her emotions even when Pliskova easily held serve to lead 3-1.

The stifling 90-degree heat and 63% humidity bothered the sturdy, well-conditioned German far less than the long-limbed, 6’1” Czech who hunched over several times to regain her breath. So, Pliskova tried to shorten the rallies even more than before. The tactic backfired. She made four unforced errors going for big groundstrokes and quickly lost her serve to make it 3-all.

Kerber recovered from love-30 and blasted the shot of the match, a courageous down-the-line forehand winner, at 30-all and held serve for 4-3. After Pliskova had barely hung on to hold for 4-4, the more experienced and steadier Kerber seized the last eight points for the coveted title.

“It means a lot to me,” said the ecstatic, constantly smiling Kerber. “When I was a kid, I was always dreaming to one day be the No. 1 player in the world, to win Grand Slams. All the dreams came true this year, and I’m just trying to enjoy every moment on court and also off court.”

While Kerber was a sensation this year, Pliskova was a revelation this tournament. Though Pliskova improved her season-ending ranking for nine straight years, she performed dismally at the four majors. In 17 appearances, the underachieving, 24-year-old blonde inexplicably never advanced past the third round.

Pliskova is always an extremely dangerous opponent because of her percussive groundstrokes and explosive first serve — she led the WTA Tour in aces the past four years. Pliskova showed she was finally putting her huge, but often erratic, game together two weeks earlier at Cincinnati. There, Pliskova, who has Polynesian-style tattoos on her left thigh and on her left arm, tattooed No. 10 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 3 and French Open winner Garbine Muguruza, and then Kerber 6-3, 6-1 in the final.

Kerber was undoubtedly exhausted from the long, hot and successful summer. Even so, this impressive win gave Pliskova a newfound confidence and momentum going into the U.S. Open.

Pliskova would need that confidence and momentum because she faced a much tougher draw than Kerber. After knocking out No. 17 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 6-4, she battled No. 6 Venus Williams, who, at 36-years-young, is as passionate about competing as ever. “I love that I love it,” exuded Venus. “When you love something, you put the work in. I love the challenge. I like the pressure. I like the high stakes.”

Down match point at 4-5 in the final set of their thrill-filled, fourth-round duel, Pliskova charged forward and smacked a swinging volley winner. “I really played the perfect point there, and she managed to stay alive,” lamented Venus afterward.

Venus also stared defeat in the face and didn’t blink. Down triple match point with Pliskova serving at 6-5, 40-love in the deciding set, Venus rebounded to deuce and then hit two forehand winners to force a tiebreaker.

The pro-Venus fans were going crazy. But the much-younger Czech took the tiebreaker 7-3 on her fifth match point to prevail 4-6, 6-4, 7-6.

In the semifinals, Pliskova faced an even more formidable test. Could she become the third woman to take out both Williams sisters in the same U.S. Open, a feat accomplished before only by Justine Henin (2007) and Kim Clijsters (2009)?

In a surprising turnabout, the contender played like a champion, and the champion played like a contender. Calm and composed, the new Pliskova got her first nine first serves in, broke Serena’s vaunted serve twice and grabbed 11 of the last 12 points to take the opening set, 6-2.

Serena, hampered by recurrent shoulder problems and an injured knee, looked slow and wore an anguished expression. Still, she valiantly fought back to force a tiebreaker. Ironically, the serve that saved her so often in the past, and considered the greatest shot in women’s tennis history, betrayed her. She nervously double-faulted twice and lost the tiebreaker 7-3 and the match 6-2, 7-6.

“I didn’t see this coming,” a shocked Evert remarked.

Leaving Arthur Ashe Stadium, Serena waved good-bye and defiantly pointed upward with her forefinger, a gesture indicating she was still No. 1. But in reality, she was No. 1 no longer.

On the match that dethroned Queen Serena, Pliskova said, “I don’t believe it. Actually, I do believe it. I always knew I had a chance to beat anybody when I am playing my game.”

This U.S. Open gave us a new retractable stadium roof, new attendance records and a new women's champion. It also likely gave us an exciting future champion for the post-Serena era.