MELBOURNE—The classic tennis conundrum is this: You need confidence to win, but you need to win to have confidence. How, you might wonder, do either of those things ever happen?
When it comes to beating the ATP’s Big 3, Stan Wawrinka has been wrestling with something like this question for most of his career. As of yesterday, Wawrinka was a combined 3-44 against Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and his quarterfinal opponent here, Novak Djokovic. From blowouts to heartbreakers, Wawrinka had found every possible way to lose to the game’s stars, but no way to win.
That changed tonight in Melbourne Park, where Wawrinka beat Djokovic, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7, in exactly four hours. It’s hard to imagine, after all of those defeats, that Stan could have been all that sure he would come out on top in this one—he admitted afterward that he started to cramp in the fifth set because he was “very nervous.” Yet Wawrinka also said that he had learned from his losses over the years, and that the longest and toughest of them, to Djokovic in five sets at the Australian Open and U.S. Open in 2013, had actually made Wawrinka feel better about his game and where he could take it. They has been defeats on the scoreboard, but from the perspective of his career and his expectations for himself, Stan had been winning on the inside.
“Last year I took a lot of confidence with those matches with Novak,” Wawrinka said today. “Was really close. I was playing good. I came on the court tonight with a lot of confidence in myself, knowing that if I play my best game, I always have a chance against him”
Still, it’s one thing to feel like you can play with someone; it’s another to feel like you can beat him. So how did Stan finally beat Djokovic? The way so many other seemingly cursed players break the spell against a nemesis: With a little luck, and a little help.
Serving at 7-8 in the fifth, 30-30, Djokovic drilled a serve into Wawrinka’s body. Wawrinka's return popped up off his frame and knuckled diabolically into the toughest spot possible for Djokovic, just in front of the net, at its far end. Djokovic tried one of the few shots open to him, a shoveled, sharp-angled forehand, but it landed wide. On the next point, match point, Djokovic cracked a good first serve wide to Wawrinka’s backhand, and, for the one of the few times all night, followed it to the net. When Stan’s return floated straight to his racquet for a forehand volley, it looked like the right decision. Until Nole hit the ball, that is—his volley was a brick. It flew wildly off his strings and landed in the alley. Two of the game’s most impressive win streaks—Djokovic’s 25 straight victories at the Australian Open and his 14 straight Grand Slam semifinal appearances—went with it.
“I can say I was lucky with some shots last year in our match,” a philosophical Djokovic said afterward about his two Aussie epics with Wawrinka. “This time it was him that had luck a little bit, this mishit return, then an easy volley for me on match point. But this is sport. He showed his mental strength and he deserved to win.”
Wawrinka may have gotten a break in the final game, but as Djokovic implied, if any tennis player ever deserved a break, it was Stan. Over the last 18 months, he had turned into tennis’ Sisyphus, the latest in a series of quality players—with Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Roddick and many more—to bang his head against the cement ceiling that the top men have laid over top of the game. At 28, Wawrinka had hired a new coach, increased his strength and stamina, added pace to his serve, and made himself into the Top 10 player most of us felt he should have been all along. Yet in the end, his tournaments still ended with brutal losses to Djokovic, beatdowns at the hands of Nadal, and defeats snatched from the jaws of victory against Federer.
Today, Wawrinka was asked what it was like to take those defeats for so long. His answer was simple, indisputable, and without bitterness.
“They are just best players than us, than all the rest,” he said. “That’s why they always won everything. You have to deal with that. I know that the only thing I can control is what I’m doing off the court. I always try to improve, to find solutions against the top players. It’s never easy.”
It took Wawrinka a set to show the Aussie fans that he had indeed improved in the last 12 months—he may have even improved in the last two. Djokovic beat him easily in London in November, but starting in the second set tonight, it was Wawrinka who was the stronger player, and who had the world No. 2 at his mercy.
Wawrinka hit a heavier ball than Djokovic, as he typically does, but this time Novak had a tougher time taking control of rallies. Wawrinka, who knew he couldn’t be cautious, finished with 51 winners and 60 errors. He pinned Djokovic back, and took advantage of an uncharacteristic lack of depth from the Serb. But the crucial difference this time was Wawrinka’s serve. He had 17 aces, and every one of them seemed to come right when he needed one. Time and again, Stan fell behind on his serve before hammering a series of unreturnables to hold. This time it was Wawrinka who won the key points; his finished with 153 in total, Djokovic with eight more at 161.
For all of that, though, the Djokovic curse was still in effect as the fifth set began. Novak had played a lot of mediocre, hesitant tennis through the middle three sets. His vaunted return of serve had been inconsistent, as had his ground game. The key stat of the night wasn’t Wawrinka’s aces or winners; it was Djokovic’s errors. He finished with 60, exactly as many as his bigger-hitting opponent. But the truly uncharacteristic moment for Djokovic came when he broke serve for 2-1 in the fifth, let out a classic primal roar, and proceeded to make four stunning unforced errors to break himself back. From there, while it was close all the way, it felt like Wawrinka had the edge. He had survived the expected disaster; maybe this time things would be different.
“I did feel confident,” Djokovic said about his mindset at the beginning of the fifth. “I started great. I made a break at one-all, and then I played a poor game, four forehand errors.”
In general, Novak seemed OK with this loss; his body language was more relaxed than it has been after other tough defeats in the past. The match reminded me a little of Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in the fifth set in the final here two years ago. Like Djokovic today, Nadal was the famously clutch player who took a fifth set lead only to falter, because everyone falters in fifth sets eventually. There was a sense today that Djokovic knew he wasn’t going to beat Wawrinka in every five-setter forever.
“He took his opportunities,” Djokovic said. “He deserved this win today. I congratulate him absolutely....Obviously I’m disappointed, at this stage. But tomorrow is a new day. I have to accept the fact that you can’t win all the matches that you play.”
Tomorrow is a new day for Stan Wawrinka as well. He said afterward that he was “very, very, very, very, very happy” to win. He’s in his second straight Grand Slam semifinal, and he has finally cracked the Big 3 ceiling at a major. But credit the Big 3 for helping him “find the solution” to them, as he put it. Normally tennis players need to win to gain confidence; Wawrinka found his the only we could, by losing.