Beautifully Brutal Tennis

by: Peter Bodo | September 05, 2013

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NEW YORK—Now is the summer of Roger Federer’s discontent. Meanwhile, his longtime Swiss understudy, who’s lived all these years in Federer’s shadow, is suddenly having the time of his life. This afternoon found Stanislas Wawrinka frolicking in the mellow, autumnal light that bathed Arthur Ashe Stadium, happily raining down aces and cracking rifle-shot forehands that ended up knocking defending U.S. Open champion Andy Murray out of the tournament.

The score was 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Murray never had a chance and, frankly, for long portions of this match it looked as if he didn’t especially want one. This was so comprehensive a beating that Murray never even got a look at a break point over the course of Wawrinka’s two-hour and 15-minute exhibition of big Swiss firepower. 

“Manislas,” as some of his fellow pros refer to him, may look like he belongs in a pub playing darts instead of tennis, but when you can wallop a hygienically pure, solid ball, you’re not always obliged to do a great deal of running. Murray’s vaunted defensive skills? They were on display only sporadically today, and then in the most literal sense—when he was running for dear life. 

“I didn’t create any break point chances,” a long-faced Murray admitted later, as it slowly sank in that he’s now a lame-duck defending champion. “So. . .he served well. He hit a lot of lines, he was going for big shots. He played too well.”

True enough. In addition to winning 88 percent of the first serves he put into play (on a 55 percent first-serve conversion percentage), Wawrinka whacked 45 winners and forced Murray into making 32 errors. The No. 9 seed’s all-around game was so sharp that he won nine of the 10 serve-and-volley points he tried against arguably the most lethal returner the game. 

As Murray said, “He served and volleyed at the beginning of the match on some quite big points. On 30-all points and maybe a couple of deuce points he also did it.”

The key game was the final one of the first set, with Murray serving to stay in it at 4-5. It was an eight-deuce, 23-point game, and for a while it looked as if Murray couldn’t win it and Wawrinka wouldn’t win it. The 28-year-old Swiss had five set points rebuffed, but he emerged from that crucible when Murray mangled yet another forehand service return. 

“We were a little hesitating with the return and not doing too much (up to that point),” Wawrinka said later. “For me to break him to take the first set was really important, especially mentally to be more relaxed. Then I started to be much more aggressive.”

In truth, until today Wawrinka has always looked—and performed—like an unfinished project. Whoever created him set the chisel aside a little too soon, leaving a few rough edges on the sculpture. Of course, the bar was set high in that regard by Federer, what with all that “beautiful tennis” and “religious experience” hogwash, but in fairness the association has also produced some tangible rewards for Wawrinka—among them the gold medal he earned in doubles in yoke with Roger at the Beijing Olympics.

Now, after years spent as Federer’s wingman, Wawrinka is coming into his own as a stand-up, flat-footed puncher, beautiful tennis be danged. Today, Wawrinka beat Murray’s fastest first serve (135 M.P.H) by a single tick of the gun.

It’s an interesting serve, too, hit with almost no action in the legs. Wawrinka tosses the ball and comes crashing down on it with a great wrenching of his shoulders, almost toppling. It reminds me of those videos of an old stadium as it collapses under a massive blast of dynamite. You half-expect a cloud of dust to boil up around Wawrinka’s ankles after he serves, even when the court isn’t clay. Murray was able to return only 68 percent of those heavy missiles, while Wawrinka managed more than 10 percent better in the same category. 

Aficionados are enamored of Wawrinka’s one-handed backhand (it’s the doomed romantic in them), and with good reason. But today his forehand was even more lethal. He tagged more than twice as many winners with it (15 to seven). Far more compact and waspish than that roundhouse backhand, it may hold the key to his immediate future in New York, especially if he meets top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Djokovic isn’t known for his kindness to guys who like to take great big cuts on fast surfaces.

These matches are never about just forehands and backhands; if they were, Wawrinka might have been a first-time Grand Slam semifinalist ages ago. Until this year, he’s had a tendency to shrink away when he found himself in the spotlight in a big match. When I asked him what he was most proud of in his performance today, Wawrinka replied with conviction: “How I was dealing with the pressure. Normally I can be a little bit nervous and I can lose few games because of that, but today I was just focus on my game.” 

This shaping of Wawrinka into a Grand Slam contender didn’t really begin in earnest today. The turning point occurred at this year's Australian Open, where Wawrinka’s heart and fighting spirit were fully tested both during and in the aftermath of his fourth-round, 12-10 in-the-fifth loss to Djokovic. Although he fell short, he emerged with greater self-respect and in the ensuing months rolled to wins over Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych (whom he also mastered here), and Richard Gasquet.

“That was a really tough moment,” Wawrinka said, reflecting on that loss. “But at the end, I was really positive with that match because all that Australian Open my level was quite good, better than ever. That’s the most important for me.”

And what of Murray, then? His partisans had to be disappointed by his general lack of energy, a deficit so much a part of Murray’s being today that it might have gone unnoticed had he not suddenly leaped to life in the very last game of the match, as if he had decided, “Now I have Stan where I want him!”

Murray is a supremely fit guy, and his workload in Flushing Meadows hasn’t exactly been overwhelming. The only real explanation for his brooding, uncertain demeanor is that somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Murray had shut off something that ought to have been turned on. Call it pressure, or perhaps that even greater enemy, the repudiation of pressure.

“It’s not so much about focus,” Murray said, when he was asked if it’s been tough to put on a game face again after his historic triumph at Wimbledon. “You know, when you work hard for something for a lot of years it’s going to take a bit of time to really fire yourself up and get yourself training 110 percent. That’s something that I think is kind of natural after what happened at Wimbledon. But I got here. I mean I have been here nearly three weeks now.”

Well, I’ve been here for nearly three weeks now as well, so that counts for nothing much at all. Take Murray’s words as an assertion of his right not to embrace the pressure, his right to vote “present” on the “yes” or “no” issue that is every athletic contest. 

Today, Wawrinka voted “YES” and he’s in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Immediately after the win, he received a text from Federer. Wawrinka wouldn’t divulge what he said, other than “congrats,” but my guess is that he complimented Wawrinka on his beautifully brutal tennis.

If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.

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