By Alana Mitchelson
(January 26, 2014) MELBOURNE – After playing the tournament of his career, Stanislas Wawrinka has earned himself his first ever Grand Slam title in his major final debut, prevailing over a struggling Rafael Nadal in four sets 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
His Australian Open success will see Wawrinka rise to a career-high ranking of world No. 3 on Monday and he will become the new Swiss No. 1, having outlasted Roger Federer in the tournament.
With three consecutive wins over top 10 players during the fortnight gone by, Wawrinka’s story is one of the underdog and is one which has garnered the respect from tennis aficionados far and wide.
The nervous energy surrounding his first Grand Slam final appearance was most noticeable during the Swiss’ first few service games. But he quickly shook them off, showing no fear in going for the big shots and did not so much as hesitate to rip winners down the line, even upon return of service.
Throughout the entirety of the first set, Wawrinka did well to disguise his nerves, appearing calm and confident on the exterior and backed this up with a solid execution of his game plan. The opening set saw him win each and every one of his first serve points kept in play, as well as all of the points whereby he approached the net.
He powered through his service games, Nadal having difficulty instilling much pressure on the Swiss, and at 5-3 Wawrinka saved three break points. He followed through to ace his way to snatching the first set over the world No. 1, 6-3.
”I was surprised about how well I was playing,” Wawrinka said after winning the title.
“I was expecting to be a little bit nervous, not to move so well, especially at the beginning like I did against Djokovic. But tonight was just the perfect start.”
During his previous 12 tournament encounters with the Spaniard, Wawrinka had not once taken a set off the current world No. 1.
“He was playing amazing. It is very tough to stop him when he’s playing that way,” Nadal said.
“He’s playing better and better and he’s playing with amazing confidence, hitting every ball very, very hard and moving great.”
But the Swiss’ momentum did not follow on at this same level throughout the match as Nadal suddenly called a medical timeout early on in second set shortly after Wawrinka had established another early break lead. The crowd reacted in the most peculiar way by booing the usual, regular crowd favourite.
”The crowd wants to enjoy a great match. They paid tickets to watch the best match possible and I was not able to offer that to them. I wanted to try my best until the end but I can understand very well the reaction. They understood later that it was bad,” Nadal said.
A very different Nadal returned to court. His usual intensity had dropped dramatically, movement was at a bare minimum, serves were deficient in power, and his groundstrokes were lacking in depth and generated a greater clearance of the net. He was, at times, also merely chipping at returns.
The Spaniard had undergone an injury to his back and received treatment from a massage therapist after the second set.
”That wasn’t easy,” Wawrinka said, reflecting on Nadal’s physical state during the remainder of the match.
“He wasn’t serving at all. He wasn’t moving during one set. Then it was a completely different match. I had to focus on myself, to try to find a way to just win it… I knew it was really, really difficult for him. I was unhappy for that because normally that’s not the way I want to win a match.
”I had to keep myself calm and just try to stay aggressive because he was injured, but he was still trying. It was not easy. I started to be really nervous because I started to realize that I could win a Grand Slam. In the end I just went back to the game and focused on what I wanted to do.”
Nadal, who had an emotional year after facing serious injury setbacks which had forced him to miss last year’s Australian Open, found the back pains especially frustrating but nevertheless pushed on. For the 13-time Grand Slam champion, retirement was not an option.
“Since the beginning, I felt a little bit from the warmup… end of the first set, I started to feel worse. Then at the beginning of the second was the key moment that I felt very stiff during a serve,” Nadal said.
“Last thing that I wanted to do was to retire. I hate to do that, especially in a final. Same time, it’s tough to see yourself working for a moment like this the whole year and when the moment arrives, you feel that you are not able to play at your best.
”It was not an easy situation for me to be on the court like this but I tried hard until the end, trying to finish the match as good as I could for the crowd, for the opponent, for me.”
Nadal managed to break ahead in the third set but these opportunities were mostly presented as a result of his opponent’s mistakes rather than from the success of his own offensive play. His slow, and hence, very predictable serves gave Wawrinka more chances to be aggressive upon return and break ahead.
Wawrinka too began to deal with an internal battle of his own as he encountered a different kind of challenge on the court – one which was more psychological – and that was how to respectfully attack an injured opponent. This seemed to throw him off his game to an extent, his unforced errors accumulating, and a couple of untimely mistakes handed Nadal the third set.
Nadal recognized that his injury should not in any way take away from the resilient stand Wawrinka has made on behalf of the lower ranked players trying to breakthrough in this sport and that he should receive nothing but praise for the sensational, entertaining tennis he has dished out for fans throughout the tournament.
”It is a moment to congratulate Stan. He’s playing unbelievable. He really deserves to win the title. I’m very happy for him. He’s a great, great guy. He’s a good friend of mine. I am really happy for him… he had a great year last year and to start the new year winning two titles is just amazing.
“I’m obviously disappointed and very sad about what happened. But that’s life, that’s sport.”
Wawrinka is the first man in eight years to clinch the title after winning a pre-Australian Open tournament; in Wawrinka’s case, Chennai. He is also the first man in 11 years to defeat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds at a Grand Slam; an incredible achievement that should not be overlooked in the tennis history books.
”Before today, for me it wasn’t a dream. I never expected to play a final. I never expected to win a Grand Slam,” Wawrinka admitted with a smile.
“And right now I just did it. Especially with the way I was playing all tournament, it’s for me a big surprise to play that well. To beat Rafa today, even if he was injured, I think I played my best first set during the match. I was ready to play four hours or five to beat Novak in the quarter, to beat Berdych in semis. That shows me I’m doing the right thing… that if you practice well, if you work hard, you will always have a chance.
”I will need time to realize what I did in these two weeks. In the end, even if Rafa was injured, I think I deserve that Grand Slam because I won against Djokovic, No. 2 and (now) I won against Rafa. I had an amazing two weeks and I was playing my best tennis ever.”
Alana Mitchelson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist was covering the Australian Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her tournament updates on Twitter @TennisNewsTPN and read her personal website.