MELBOURNE—Stan Wawrinka has made something of a specialty of Australian Open night sessions over the years. In 2011, he ran Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick off the court in straight sets in evening matches, and last year he did very nearly as well in defeat, teaming with Novak Djokovic in a wee-hour classic that went to 12-10 in the fifth set.
Wawrinka kept the tradition alive on Sunday night by knocking off Tommy Robredo 6-3, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5). His play may not have been quite as blistering as it has been here in the past, but Stan’s stats were still impressive. Fourteen aces, 57 winners against 37 errors, 17 for 25 at the net, a high serve speed of 137 m.p.h., only one break surrendered. And he did all of that against the peskiest of old pros. Robredo came back from two sets down three times at Roland Garros last year, and you could tell tonight that he hasn’t forgotten that fact. In the second set, Robredo was down a break and making no inroads in the rallies, but he hung around long enough to make Wawrinka nervous and force a tiebreaker. In the third, when a lot of guys would have had one foot on an airplane out of Oz, Tommy hung around some more and came within two points of stealing it.
But Wawrinka was the more powerful ball-striker; Robredo couldn’t match his pace. The Swiss’s average first serve was 10 m.p.h. faster than the Spaniard’s, and the difference may have been roughly the same on their ground strokes. Even worse for Robredo, his favorite play, the inside-out forehand, feeds straight into Wawrinka’s favorite play, the down-the-line backhand. While an anxious Stan botched his chance to serve out the second set at 5-4, a more seasoned Stan came up with the right serve-and-volley play at the end of the third-set tiebreaker to close the match out. The old Wawrinka could easily have handed over either of the last two sets, but not the Wawrinka of the last 12 months.
Which leads to the next, and most obvious, question: Is this Wawrinka ready to take the next step in his next match, when he faces Djokovic again? A few guys—Del Potro, Tsonga, and Berdych, mostly—have had some success against the Big 4 at the majors over the years, but mostly they’ve come up short, along with everyone else. Now it’s Stan’s turn to take a shot. He has a couple of wins over Murray at the U.S. Open, but nothing to show for his efforts against Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer at any of the Slams.
As I said, Wawrinka pushed Djokovic to 12-10 in the fifth here last year, and 6-4 in the fifth at the U.S. Open nine months later. You could look at those scores and believe that he’s due to finally cross the finish line against Novak. Then again, you could look at another set of scores and come to the opposite conclusion. The last two times they played, at indoor events in Paris and London last fall, Djokovic won easily. More crucially to the psychology of this matchup is the fact that the Serb has won their last 14 meetings, dating back to 2006.
In some ways, the setting is right for an upset. Wawrinka has shown that he can hit through the court in Laver Arena even on a chilly night, and he hasn’t lost a match yet in 2014, having won the tournament in Chennai the opening week. In other ways, of course, this is the worst setting imaginable to try to beat Djokovic, who has won 25 straight matches at the Australian Open.
Wawrinka’s game has improved to the point where he can stay with the Big 4 physically. Over the last year, he’s gotten stronger and his serve has more pop—“more easy power,” as Aussie commentator Lleyton Hewitt put it tonight. He's also shown signs that he can win without his best, a skill that has always separated the best from the rest. And I liked the way Stan worked his way through the third-set breaker tonight. But one other moment also sticks out. Serving at set point in the second set against Robredo, Wawrinka hammered a serve out wide in the ad court; it looked unreturnable, and Stan stopped for a split-second. Except that Robredo returned it. Wawrinka wasn’t ready, and he lost the point and nearly the set. That happens to a lot of players, but it doesn’t happen, at that stage, to Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, or Murray. Wawrinka put on a memorable ball-striking display against Djokovic here last year. This time, can he win instead? He’ll take his place with the contenders on Tuesday night.