Stan Wawrinka’s unique niche: the unsung star who thrives at Grand Slams
Stan Wawrinka thrives in the shadows, writes Tumaini Carayol, quietly reaching the latter stages of Grand Slams while all the attention is fixed on the so-called big boys.
"I'm content. I was able to watch the beginning of the match between Richard and Andy... and (now) I see the end of their match,” chuckled Stan Wawrinka after his 6-2 6-1 7-6(7) victory over Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
The men’s defending champion had a multitude of reasons to be laughing on Wednesday. Firstly, there is the obvious: Wawrinka has arrived in the semi-finals of the French Open relatively unscathed and free of nerves that have downed greater players in their Slam defences. After being forced to call on all his experience and resourcefulness to swerve a first round defeat against eternal irritant Lukas Rosol, the remainder of the previous 11 days have been plain sailing.
The third seed should also be happy that he has arrived at the final stages in almost ideal circumstances, staying far enough from his top level to remain on his toes and overcome a few other minor hurdles, but with the knowledge that he’s timing his rise in form with the precision every Swiss stereotype expects of him.
But Wawrinka’s comment revealed far more than just a touch of humour. It was also a reminder that even when returning to the tournament he conquered in such a stunning manner 52 weeks ago, Wawrinka still largely conducts his business in the shadows and away from the peripheral vision of most of the tennis world. As the whole of the tournament’s eyes rested on the match of the day between Andy Murray and the only remaining Frenchman in Richard Gasquet, the defending champion trotted off to the secondary court and eased through his own quarter-final. When he was finished, all eyes remained firmly fixed on Chatrier.
It’s obvious that Wawrinka’s achievements over the past two and a half years are terribly underrated in an era when the bar of legendary achievements is set impossibly high. His consistency at the biggest tournaments alone merit more appreciation: Wawrinka’s semi-final this week will mark an incredible sixth Slam semi-final in the 11 tournaments since he reached the stage for the first time at the 2013 US Open, and he has reached the quarter-final stage 10 times in his last 13 slams. Still people continue to question his ability to survive the opening rounds.
By comparison, it took the likes of David Ferrer, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych all their years at the top of the sport to achieve their own respective tallies of six, six, and five Slam semi-finals. After players such as Tsonga stressed the superiority of their overall resumés after Wawrinka’s first Slam title, the 32 year-old is well on his way to overtaking them in the other columns.
Beyond that, Wawrinka has carved out such a unique niche for himself. Both tennis and logic underline the fact that best-of-five sets is the ultimate challenge in tennis. It’s only logical that a risk-taking big hitter should have more problems sustaining their level across best of five sets against the defensive machines of this era, than in the less physical and demanding best of three matches on the main ATP tour.
For the past three years, Wawrinka has laughed at logic, thriving almost solely under these conditions and his record against the greatest defensive machine of them all, Novak Djokovic, continues to define this period. Across best-of-three matches, the Swiss is 1-18 in sets against Djokovic since 2009 - and he last defeated Djokovic in this format when the Serb was a teenager. Across best-of-five matches, Wawrinka has either defeated Djokovic or taken him to five sets in all their five recent meetings.
The narrative of Wawrinka being overlooked and underappreciated is as old as his career. He spent his entire life as a professional tennis player in the shadows of Roger Federer, and he still calmly answers an insulting amount of questions about his legendary countryman.
Stan Wawrinka celebratesReuters
If placed in Wawrinka’s position, there are so many other players who would demand more credit and respect for their achievements, but Wawrinka does the opposite: he invites people to overlook him and he seems to thrive off it.
“When I look at myself, I say, no, I'm not at the same level but who knows?” he said before his title defence. “Present, I'd say that Novak is the main favourite. It was the case last year, as well.
" I think to beat him, it's going to be very difficult, and then there is Murray and Nadal on an equal footing, and then I'm just after them. Just after."
It’s clear that Wawrinka relishes his position as the one player that stands “just after” the group of big boys, and he constantly reinforces the idea that he is not level with them. It’s not a question of self-belief, but for any player it seems like the shadows are a much more comfortable space to inhabit than the blinding light of expectation. As all the attention and pressure still continues to fall on Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Murray and Federer, it allows him the space to focus on getting through, waiting for his moment to strike.
On Friday, that moment will finally arrive for Wawrinka. He has navigated the rounds in the shadows of his rivals and he has played at a level that he’ll hope will allow him to elevate it when he steps onto Philippe Chatrier and out of the shadows, as has happened numerous times in recent history. And this time, everyone will be watching him.