Nice Swiss guy does it his way to oust top seeds and take Grand Slam
Wawrinka the first man to defeat top two seeds at a slam since Sergi Bruguera in 1993
Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland celebrates winning championship point in his men’s final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park. Photograph: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images
If every champion were as humble as Stanislas Wawrinka, sport would be a very fine place indeed to celebrate all that is admirable about human endeavour. If every loser took defeat the way Rafael Nadal accepted his opponent’s bursts of excellence and his own physical breakdown during the final of the Australian Open, that environment would be as close to perfect as we have any right to demand.
This was one of those sporting occasions – a good way short of greatness but utterly memorable, with a sliver of controversy – to encourage applause and set aside cynicism.
As journalists and television commentators jostled to garland the winner with accolades and pester him for insights, Wawrinka remained as blushingly unmoved as he normally does on court.
Shivers of doubt
Except that earlier in the evening the old misgivings that have checked his development flooded back at the most inconvenient moment to send shivers of doubt through his racket when he was in sight of victory.
The Swiss found enough resolve to ignore Nadal’s back problems and finished strongly, but there were plenty of people in the Rod Laver Arena who wondered if this most diffident of athletes had the steel to cut down his stricken opponent. Was he too nice to win?
Among them was his coach since April, Magnus Norman, who observed: “I thought he was a little bit soft in the third set, I was not really happy with the way he took the situation. Obviously it’s really difficult when you play someone and you feel that he is suffering. You get tentative.
Pushing his shots
“He was pushing his shots a little bit, but then in the fourth he came back again and started to play his game. That was good that he came back.”
Norman added: “I took the job because Stan for me is a really humble guy, a nice guy. I didn’t take the job because I thought he was going to be top five but I knew he had great results in him.”
Wawrinka did it, though. He proved nearly every expert wrong. And he did it his way, a little awkwardly. When they embraced at the finish, Wawrinka smothered Nadal with sympathy, as if he had stolen his pet dog. He did not feel guilty beating a wounded foe, but he did feel concern for an opponent he is happy to call “a great friend”.
For years, Wawrinka has climbed tantalisingly within reach of the summit of his sport. Last night, he put his hands on top of the mountain and dragged himself to the top, his red-tipped, turned-up nose lighting up a face that shouted bliss.
He is the first No 8 in the world to win a slam since Brian Teacher won this event 33 years ago. He is the first player to beat Novak Djokovic and Nadal in a slam tournament. He is the first man to defeat the top two seeds at a slam since Sergi Bruguera in 1993 at Roland Garros.
He did not know any of these things, but he was happy to accept them. Did he, then, wonder if he could ever be No 1 in the world? “No, not at all,” the 28-year-old said.
“I’m trying to improve my game, step after step. And we’ll see. I never dreamed about winning a grand slam because, for me, I was not good enough to beat those guys. I still think I’m dreaming. It’s a strange feeling.”
Many years ago, Wawrinka read a Samuel Beckett quote: “Fail better.” He has it tattooed on his left arm to remind him of his struggle.
“I had that quote in my head for a long time. It was part of my life, how I see life, especially how I see my tennis life. Before today, I always was saying that against Roger, Rafa, Novak, you always lose, every week.
“So, it’s not easy, my tennis life. When you lose, it’s tough to get through, to take a positive from a loss, failing again at a tournament.
“That’s how I see my career. I always go back to the practice court, to try to improve myself, to give me a chance to beat the best players in the world. But to win a slam, to be No 3 in the world, is a big surprise for me.”
Then he allowed himself one pat on the back. “At the end, even if Rafa was injured, I think I deserved that grand slam, because I won against Djokovic, the No 2, and I won against Rafa. I had an amazing two weeks. I was playing my best tennis ever. Now I am going to Novi Sad [for Switzerland’s Davis Cup tie against Serbia].
“It’s really important for me. I’m really proud. It’s a big honour to play for my country.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get there exactly – if I’m still going to be alive after tonight – but I’m going.”
It is his ability to exude ordinariness that makes Wawrinka so likeable, a well-known athlete about to get a lot better known, and richer.
But his instincts are to stay grounded, to drink in an experience he suspects might never pass his way again.
If it doesn’t, he has done himself and his sport proud. There would, then, be time for celebration, just as there was the night he collided with a few of us in a New York bar after he beat Andy Murray in the US Open.
He probably did not imagine that night he would one day be a grand slam champion. It was not in his sights.
Now his horizons have widened, and he will take more easily what comes his way. And opponents will look at him a little differently.
“I will celebrate with my team and my family,” he said. “Depends what time we finish here. For sure, I’m going to enjoy it well.
“I don’t know where. Maybe just at the hotel. But there’s a big chance I will get drunk tonight.”
– (Guardian News & Media 2014)