For the second time this year, Stanislas Wawrinka looked ready to hand a member of the Big Four a loss at a significant tournament. And for the second time this year, the Swiss second-in-command couldn’t handle prosperity.
On the first instance, Wawrinka denied Novak Djokovic two match points before somehow losing the third (it’s here, if you’ve forgotten Nole’s magic) to lose 12-10 in the fifth set at the Australian Open. Tonight, after breaking Roger Federer while the Swiss No. 1 served for a two-set victory, Wawrinka couldn’t hold his lead in the third, losing 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-5.
The similarities extended beyond the close nature of the contest and its ultimate result. One he found his groove, Wawrinka turned back the clock to January in Melbourne, showing off a go-for-broke forehand and dictating rallies against a superior opponent. There may be no player streakier than Wawrinka these days, which is to his credit and detriment. While his surges put him in position to win matches against anyone, he invariably comes back to earth—or worse. That’s what we witnessed in the final game, as a rash of errors handed Federer the match before what seemed like an inevitable final-set tiebreaker.
But it’s not as if Federer wasn’t entirely deserving of his countryman’s charity. He fought back from a break-of-serve deficit in the third set, a predicament Federer was faced with after battling both Wawrinka and the chair umpire, Fergus Murphy. At 1-1 in the third, a game after Wawrinka saved four break points with confident, aggressive tennis, Federer fell behind 0-30. After Federer struck a wide first serve and charged toward the net to strike a volley—one he missed—the world No. 2 grew incensed when Murphy wouldn’t allow him to challenge his serve. Federer wanted to see if it landed out (it did), which would have made him hit a second serve at 0-30, thus removing himself from the 0-40 hole he found himself in. Murphy denied the overture, and Wawrinka broke Federer moments later.
I can see what Federer was complaining about—really, he’d have to stop instantly in order to challenge the serve. But what if Federer had made that volley? He obviously wouldn’t have challenged his serve then. You can’t have it both ways.
That sequence gave Wawrinka the lead for the first time, but it didn’t last long. Yet he still threatened to swipe the win from Federer, whose fans had to be on edge throughout the second half of this contest. Federer got to 30-30 on Wawrinka’s serve while leading 4-3, but Stan unleashed on a short return to win the next point, and did so again from the baseline to secure the game. Wawrinka’s bold play continued on Federer's subsequent servive game, when he earned a break point at 4-4.
But in this wild, swinging poker game of a tennis match, Federer called Wawrinka’s line-painting shots with one of his own, hitting a forehand that elicited a failed challenge moments later. It couldn't have come at a better time; moments later, it was 5-4. The two friends then exchanged a pair of holds, but with practically all the chips in at 6-5, Wawrinka blinked.
It was hardly an example of Federer calling his opponents’ bluff—Wawrinka certainly brought the goods today. But Federer, as he often does, and as Djokovic did Down Under, held the trump card.