‘Wawrinka stuns Djokovic to win US Open’ went the BBC headline. But how stunned could the Serb world number one have felt, really? Of Stan Wawrinka’s three grand slam triumphs, every single one has featured a win over Djokovic – including the 2014 Australian Open quarter-final, and last year’s masterclass in the final of the French Open. If Novak was indeed stunned by Stan’s win on Sunday, he must have the most terrible memory in tennis.
You can’t fault Djokovic for feeling confident pre-match, though. Based off cold statistics, he was the favourite, ahead in the head-to-head 19–4, and in the grand slam count twelve to two. But he would have known that where Wawrinka is concerned, any such tale of the tape is academic. In grand slam finals at least, the Swiss is a statistical anomaly: the underdog that isn’t. Three times he’s faced the world number one player – once Nadal, twice Djokovic – and three times he’s beaten him. It’s almost as if Wawrinka becomes a different beast when the stakes are highest. So he does: Stan morphs into The Stanimal.
It’s not a physical transformation; he had those stevedore’s shoulders and oil-drum torso all along. As Stanimal behaviourists will attest, it starts with the specimen’s body language instead. Watch closely and he’ll begin pointing to his temple after winning an important point, as much as to say: you won’t beat me, I am a mental fortress. The real giveaways, though, are the groundstrokes. Stan’s backhand has long been the market leader, engineered and conditioned for optimum destructiveness. But when wielded by the Stanimal, the backhand gets an upgrade, and the forehand – generally the less reliable shot – becomes an all-powerful winner machine. A fusillade of heavy artillery later and the enemy is battered into submission: by the close of the US Open final, Djokovic’s body had buckled at the impact of Wawrinka’s powerful blows.
If Stan could summon The Stanimal on command, there’s no telling how many grand slams he’d rack up. Of course, he can’t. Tether a beast and it loses its wildness. Which explains the most common charge levelled against Wawrinka: his inconsistency. Yes, he has the talent to win grand slams; equally, as we saw in Wimbledon and the Australian Open this year, he’s not above losing them the early rounds. If anyone can unseat Djokovic from world number one, then, it won’t be the Swiss. Where Stan goes missing for months at a time, losing to the Andrey Kuznetsovs and Grigor Dimitrovs of the tour, Novak is never off duty, gobbling masters events for breakfast and reaching the business end of almost every grand slam going. The Serb is the keen-jawed tennis executive, nine-to-fiving week in, week out. The Swiss, by comparison, is the stubbled part-timer, swooping into the office unexpectedly to close the big deal – much to the chagrin of his more strait-laced coworkers.
While in all likelihood Stanimal will never have the number one next to his name, he’s singular in another way – an unusually late bloomer, he didn’t win his first major title until aged 28. Previously, Wawrinka fell into the same bucket as Richard Gasquet: a shotmaker with a highlight-reel backhand who lacked the steel to threaten the top players. That was until Wawrinka’s ‘big bang’ moment at the 2013 Australian Open, when, outplaying Djokovic in round four, he lost narrowly 12–10 in the fifth. Encouraged that he could mix it with the best players, he shucked off his low self-esteem and a year later won the very same tournament, up-ending Djokovic and Nadal for good measure along the way. When the French Open was added (in spectacular fashion) a year later, it confirmed the arrival of a new force at the top of men’s game. Until then, grand slams were the monopoly of a favoured few, with everyone else (Cilic, Del Potro) left fighting for the odd scrap from the table.Wawrinka, thrillingly, had broken the bear hug of the big four, arriving just as his Swiss compatriot Roger Federer fell off the pace, just when tennis was threatening to become the Murray-Djokovic show (where the word ‘show’ is used loosely).
We can all be thankful for the Stanimal’s predatory swoops. And at 31, the old beast is showing no sign of mellowing with age. Will we see him one more time on the lawns of SW19? A career grand slam – now that really would leave the tennis world stunned.