A long-time caterpillar is now a butterfly

Pete Sampras has held many a Grand Slam Trophy. He also knows what the first-time feeling that Wawrinka is experiencing is.-AP

Though, the longing when Stanislas Wawrinka won the season opener in Chennai was for him to gatecrash the top four, nobody expected it to arrive so quickly. He is now No. 3 and Federer No. 8. He is for sure no more a sidekick, writes N. Sudarshan.

History repeats itself, so they say. In men’s tennis, it has been the case in 34 of the last 35 Grand Slams. The same four players have kept winning. Even on the odd occasion — like last year’s Wimbledon — when the top seeds slipped and were found despairing, the men who were expected to make the final were there as scheduled.

“As you know, if you are not Roger (Federer) or Rafa (Nadal) and (Novak) Djokovic or Andy (Murray) now, you don’t win so many tournaments and you always lose,” said a player. Rarely did one see a tournament conclude in a way not expected at the outset.

But, at the 2014 Australian Open, history, to everybody’s relief, didn’t repeat and we finally had a new champion in the same player who had earlier bemoaned the stranglehold at the top, Stanislas Wawrinka. In victory, he is now the first No. 8 to win a Slam since Brian Teacher won this event 33 years ago; the first player to beat Djokovic and Nadal in a Slam; the first man to defeat the top two seeds at a Slam since Sergi Bruguera in 1993 at Roland Garros and, at 28, the oldest first-time men’s Grand Slam champion since Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon 2001.

For long, this sort of history was something only the ‘Big Four’ have carried with impunity. For Wawrinka it has been all negative, a weight he would surely have wanted to shred at the slightest of opportunities. He was 4-44 against the ‘Big Four’ and before his final he was 0-12 against Nadal. In those 12 matches he hadn’t won as much as a set. He had to find hope where none existed and that too against a man who was perhaps the hottest favourite that one could think of in recent finals.

So how did he manage it? “I came on court believing in myself,” he said after the 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory. That’s easier said than done. But what Wawrinka did on court during this tournament was a microcosm of what the man has been for a while now.

It was an year-long process, which started at this very tournament in 2013 when the fire was kindled after an agonising, but not shattering, five-set loss to Djokovic, and ended with another Djokovic encounter, this time for the better, a five-set victory, which he credited as a source of belief for the final night.

In between, he made his first ever visits to the US Open semifinals and the elite year-ending ATP World Tour Finals, added more pep to his serve, developed a lethal forehand to complement what is now the most effective one-handed backhand in the men’s game.

“I never dreamed about winning a Grand Slam,” he said. “Because, for me, I was not good enough to beat those guys. I still think I’m dreaming. To be honest, I don’t realise. It feels strange.”

That’s how out of place one can feel — both after a win or a loss — in this era. The import of Wawrinka’s stupendous win is to be seen in this context. The refrain has always been that he and others have been unlucky to have grown up in this generation of the Federers, the Nadals, the Djokovics and the Murrays. Not very long ago, players like Boris Becker and Mats Wilander could reach the final at 17 and win it too.

But, gone are those days when people used to peak in their teens. On the contrary, this is an age where shrugging off the defeatist mentality is the biggest challenge let alone think about winning titles.

The men’s game is more about suffering, standing behind the baseline and hitting groundstroke after groundstroke, staying alive in rallies for so long that only the supremely athletic and physical of players come out better. Wawrinka, through the tournament and in that Sunday’s final, got a good inkling of this — how it feels to be there and what it takes to stay there.

He encountered an injured Nadal in the final who looked set to finish hobbled. But the Spaniard hung in and even more remarkably won a set. Then, after starting in a way few first-time Grand Slam finalists start, the Swiss seemed to suffer a bout of nerves which he thought he had long banished for good.

“It wasn’t easy,” Wawrinka said. “He get injury. I saw that. He wasn’t serving at all. He wasn’t moving during one set. Then it was a completely different match. The problem is, I didn’t play well because I was waiting for him to miss. Because I was nervous, I was like, ‘OK, miss, miss, make a mistake, because I’m not going to win the match because I’m nervous.”

For anyone to be confronted with such demands, both physical and mental, is for sure unnerving. But, that’s what it takes to be at the top. As noted tennis writer Christopher Clarey remarked, “Durability is now essential to any Slam equation. Nadal’s back shouldn't diminish Wawrinka’s achievement. But it should underscore his (Nadal’s) staying power.”

To achieve this, Wawrinka is rather well placed. Asked prior to his Chennai Open triumph, if at 28 his breakthrough year has come too late, he said, “Not at all. Look at players like Roger Federer, Tommy Haas or Radek Stepanek. They all play great tennis, and are over 30. Today’s tennis is played at such a high level, you need to grow into it, have experience, learn how to deal with your body, the travelling, the pressure and so on.”

One of the main things needed to consistently compete at the top is for your basic level of play to be high. Wawrinka’s is now at its highest and he is playing his best tennis ever. Along with his forehand and serve, one of his most remarkable transformations has been his ability to not just stay with the top players during rallies but actually win them, something that proved the difference in his quarterfinal against Djokovic.

Back in September 2013, on the micro-blogging site Twitter, which is one place where Wawrinka consistently bests the ‘Big Four’, he put out two messages. He first seemed to endorse a fan’s wistful plea: “The Swiss press has to understand that @stanwawrinka has his own career and nobody needs to compare him all the time with RF!” and then put out a cartoon which said “no more a side-kick.”

The latest victory will go a long way in helping him in both. Though, the longing when Wawrinka won the season opener in Chennai was for him to gatecrash the top four, nobody expected it to arrive so quickly. He is now No. 3 and Federer No. 8. He is for sure no more a sidekick.

Tennis, in the process, finally has a new champion. Is it an incongruity, as it was with Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009 or a prophesy? Only time will tell.