Failing Best

Monday, January 27, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—“This wasn’t the way I wanted to win a tennis match,” Stan Wawrinka said a few minutes after winning the biggest tennis match of his life. “But it’s a Grand Slam, so you have to take it.”

“Take” is the operative word in that last sentence, because for an hour or so, Wawrinka didn’t look like he was ready to take what appeared to be the opportunity of his lifetime. Stan’s opponent, Rafael Nadal, had begun their Australian Open final as one of the heaviest favorites in the history of Grand Slam title matches. He and Wawrinka had played 12 times dating back to 2007, and Rafa hadn’t lost so much as a set. Nadal had won 13 Grand Slams; Wawrinka had never won a Masters title, let alone a major. In fact, since 2005 only one player outside the Big 4—Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Nadal—had won a major title. Yet all of those numbers, all of the history between these two players, all of the fabled air of the Big 4, had been rendered meaningless in the course of 80 minutes.

Wawrinka wasted no time ending his set-less streak to Nadal; guns blazing from the start, he had won the first set, 6-3. At the beginning of the second, Nadal had been laid low by a back injury that he had initially felt during the warm-up, and which had grown steadily worse. Now Rafa was arming his first serve over at 100 M.P.H. and hardly moving for balls hit anywhere but the center of the court. Down 1-5 in the second set, it looked for a second as if Nadal were heading to the net to shake hands, but on the way there he happened to knock off a forehand volley for a winner. After losing the second set a game later, though, he decided to keep going into a third.

That’s when Wawrinka, one set from his first Grand Slam title, an achievement he said he had “never even dreamed of before,” began to look this gift horse directly in the mouth. He couldn’t take the match. Pushing easy returns into the net and landing balloon-like ground strokes meters outside the lines, Stan gave the third set away to a slowly recovering Nadal.

"It wasn’t easy,” Wawrinka said. “He get injury. I saw that. He wasn’t serving at all. He wasn’t moving during one set. Then it was a completely different match. The problem is, I didn’t play well because I was waiting for him to miss. Because I was nervous, I was like, ‘OK, miss, miss, make a mistake, because I’m not going to win the match because I’m nervous.’”

Finally, Wawrinka stopped talking to Rafa in his head, and started to talking to himself.

“I had to focus on myself,” Wawrinka said, “to try to find the way just to win it.”

But even that wasn’t so easy. It seemed, with Nadal pushing his serve and not covering the sidelines, that all Wawrinka needed was to make a couple of service returns and the match would be over. And he did just that to break for 4-2, only to give that break back with two wild, skittish misses in the next game. Finally, Wawrinka took it for good with a forehand winner—his 53rd winner of the match—to break for 5-3. He celebrated by punching himself in the head three times.

“I don’t know if I’m dreaming,” Wawrinka said later, “we’ll see tomorrow morning.” Through his various post-match interviews, he seemed a little shell-shocked, a little too calm, as if it really hadn’t registered yet, and even when it did, he sill might not believe it.

He was asked, “What does winning a Grand Slam feel like?"

“To be honest," Stan answered in a slightly bewildered voice, "I don’t realize. Feels strange.”

It was strange, the whole match was strange, and in a way that was unfortunate for both players. You felt after the first set that Wawrinka had a good chance of winning even with Rafa at full strength. The new Swiss No. 1 was flowing easily around the court, getting every shot he wanted, and hitting a large share of them for winners. When he did tighten up while serving at 5-3, Nadal tightened up right back and squandered three break points with return errors on easy second serves.

“I was a little bit surprised at how well I was playing at the beginning,” Wawrinka said with a smile. “But I came on court believing in myself.” Stan credited his five-set win over Djokovic in the quarterfinals as the source of his belief tonight.

But as Wawrinka said, this wasn’t the way anyone wants to win a tennis match. It was an odd coincidence, but I noticed in the warm-up that Nadal wasn’t moving for any balls that weren’t hit right at him. That’s not unusual—the players usually hit straight down the middle in warm-ups—but I did put it in my notes. At the start of the second set, Nadal could no longer ignore it. He grabbed his back, stopped playing at full speed, and, already down a break, took a seven-minute medical timeout. When Rafa came back on court, the Aussle crowd booed him, he teared up, and he was broken again immediately. Nadal’s hopes for becoming the first man in the Open era to win each of the Grand Slams twice was unraveling.

A dejected Rafa, his baseball hat pulled as low as he possible, summed up that feeling with this painful thought:

“Is tough,” he said, “to see yourself during the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and arrives the moment and you feel that you are not able to play at your best.”

To his credit, Nadal played on. “Last thing that I wanted to do was retirement,” he said. “I hate to do that, especially in a final.” And, as he showed by winning the third set and watching Wawrinka do his best to implode, anything is possible if you can keep yourself out on a tennis court.

It was an anti-climactic end to a match that held so much promise. It felt like we had been robbed of another Golden Era classic. But Stan and Rafa were exemplary in victory and defeat.

Wawrinka kept his celebration respectfully contained, and walked over before the trophy presentation to check on his injured opponent. Nadal won the crowd back with his smiling-through-the-tears runner-up speech—“Sorry to finish this way. I tried very, very hard”—and even forgave their boos later.

“Sometimes is tough for the crowd to understand,” said Nadal, a lifelong sports fan. “The crowd, only thing wants to do is enjoy great match. They paid ticket to watch the best match possible, and I was not able to offer that to them for moments. I wanted to try my best until the end. But I can understand very well the reaction. The crowd was great with me during both weeks; support has been enormous, more than ever. You never will hear me talk badly about the crowd here.”

Yet the Australian Open remains a dangerous event for him. He has missed it more than once due to injury, and has now injured himself mid-match, and subsequently lost, three other times—in 2010, 2011, and 2014. In Nadal's (unstated) quest to reach Federer’s 17 majors, every final-round loss like this is a match he can never get back. When Rafa finally walked out of the arena and toward the interview room, the tears came for real.

But as he said, Wawrinka thoroughly deserved this victory. Stan was the man of the fortnight. He beat Djokovic in a physical battle, and Nadal in a psychological one, and became the first ATP player to knock off the top two seeds at a major since 1993. He also moved ahead of his countryman Roger Federer in the rankings for the first time in his 10-year career. But it seems that Stan has learned well from Rafa how to handle that uncomfortable fact:

“I’m ranked ahead of Roger,” Wawrinka said, “but I always feel like I’m behind him.”

And that was, oddly, the key to Wawrinka’s win. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” is the quote that Wawrinka famously has tattooed on his forearm. He was asked about it again tonight.

“I did that tattoo one year ago,” he said, “but I had that quote in my head for a long time. It was how I see my life, and especially how I see the tennis life. Every one but the Top 4 ended the tournament losing for so long, so it’s tough to take a positive.”

This has been the era of Big 4 dominance; Wawrinka, at age 28, finally turned it on its head by acknowledging that and accepting it. He took solace in the fact that "everyone" was always losing to them, not just him. And since he was always losing, the only thing he could do was take satisfaction and confidence in losing a little better. His best loss, and the start of his rise to this title, came against Djokovic here 12 months ago. That was Wawrinka's best failure, and his last so far at the Australian Open.

Wawrinka mostly walked in a daze afterward, shuttled from one TV studio to the next for interviews. But before he did the last one, Stan asked his press handlers for deux minutes—"two minutes"—to go into the locker room. I hope he screamed his head off.

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