2015: Swiss roll

For Stan Wawrinka, the goal for 2015 would have been to maintain a steady level for the whole of the season. For this, a start as good as last year was necessary. What the Swiss delivered in Chennai was even better. He did not lose a set — like last year — but played at a level much higher than before.

Stan Wawrinka… a perfect start to the 2015 season.   -  R. Ragu

Doubles champs… Jonathan Marray (left) of Great Britain and Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei.   -  R. Ragu

At 29, Stan Wawrinka is in an interesting phase. Among the ‘Big Four’, only Roger Federer is older than he is. However, it does not earn him a tag worthy enough to sit alongside the very best.

“No, I am not,” said Wawrinka when asked if he is among the best. “They have been winning for ten years, but I have only had one amazing year.”

However, Wawrinka is not a novice either, having been on the tour for over a decade, to be clubbed along with the next set of emerging youngsters.

So what does a breakout year at 29 do? It does two things: for the pack behind him, he is an agent of hope, and for the one in front, a source of threat. In addition, it lends an air of uncertainty — which is so essential in sport — to a men’s section devoid of the flux that characterises women’s tennis.

After the Aircel Chennai Open-Australian Open double in 2014, he has now added more meat to the storyline by capturing his third title in Chennai and arriving in Melbourne in the best possible shape to defend his crown.

There was much at stake for Wawrinka at the start of the season. Because for all the highs that he reached last year, he didn’t seem entirely at home in the company of the elite. A consistent streak to add to his titles in the early part of the year was missing. The Swiss’ form waxed and waned. A first Grand Slam, a first Masters title and a first Davis Cup came alongside early losses in Miami, Indian Wells and Roland Garros.

Still, by the end of the year, he reached a career high No. 4, continuing his trend of consistent upward mobility of the last few years: No. 21, No. 17, No. 17 and No. 8.

So the goal for 2015 would have been to offset the mid-season slump and maintain a steady level for the whole season. For this, a start as good as last year was necessary. What he delivered in Chennai was even better. He did not lose a set — like last year — but played at a level much higher than before.

Borna Coric, 18, a rising youngster from Croatia, was brought down to earth. David Goffin, a promising Belgian, was stopped in his tracks. And finalist Aljaz Bedene, a qualifier, but one with top-50 potential, was shown his place.

All of this was achieved with a high-percentage single-handed backhand — which is everybody’s envy — ably assisted by his much improved serve and return game.

“A perfect week for me,” was how he described it after the final. “Really happy with my level (of play). It’s tough to win an ATP title. The last one I won was in April last year. So it feels great.”

Nonetheless, there is no escaping the pressure that comes with defending a Grand Slam title. Especially for first-timers, it can be an unnerving experience.

“I’m not putting my goal to win a Grand Slam. I know I can do it, that’s not the question,” he said in his pre-tournament press conference in Australia. “But it’s a long way for that. For me most important is to be ready for the first match. I know how it is. I’ve been playing so many years to know the deal. You have to be ready, take match after match, and see where you can go.”

At the start of the 2015 season, it seems there’s no place to hide in men’s tennis.

Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray seem at full strength. Rafael Nadal is back on court and is injury-free. Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori are no longer surprise packages. Even Juan Martin del Potro looked set to join the party before pulling out of the Australian Open to rest his battered wrist.

It is beating this field that poses Wawrinka his biggest test yet. If in 2014 he raised expectations, in 2015 it will be his challenge to live up to them.

(As appeared in the Sportstar on Jan. 31, 2015)