Big-Boy Tennis

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MIAMI, Fla.—Stanislas Wawrinka, having won the first set of his third-rounder against Edouard Roger-Vasselin, stood there as the second was about to begin, dressed in his national colors, white shorts and a shirt so red that if there were a self-respecting bull within 50 miles it would have commenced to snort and paw at the earth. A shirt so red that even Wawrinka’s famous Rudolph-red nose could not compete with it.

Wawrinka confidently swept his racquet this way and that, as if shooing flies. He was willing to wait for the crowd to find its collective seat subsequent to the familiar, end-of-set turmoil. At the far end of the court, Roger-Vasselin waited, as much a patient spectator as rival.

“Manislas” was in no hurry. He left no doubt as to who was in charge at the moment, and it wasn’t the chair umpire. The scene confirmed what the scoreboard, and other scoreboards before this one in 2014, suggested: When it comes to whatever pressure a newly-minted Grand Slam champion is supposed to experience, Wawrinka wasn’t feeling it. He was in a mood to command, not to shrink away.

With the crowd settled in to his satisfaction, Wawrinka won two quick points. He missed a tricky cut volley in his next attempt, and although the ball fell practically on his shoe laces, he ignored it and let the ball boy scuttle out like a spooked crab to make the retrieve. Wawrinka then delivered a double-fault, but at least it was a prodigious one, not some feeble effort that he left spinning like a caught fish in the bottom of the net.

Thirty-all. You could call it a dangerous juncture for the world No. 3, but you’d be more accurate, as far as Wawrinka was concerned, to call it an super  opportunity to whack the living hell out of Roger-Vasselin’s next service return. The ball collapsed on itself and exploded off Wawrinka’s racquet and, as the ball made a momentary landing inside his opponent’s court, Wawrinka added insult to injury by yelling, “Come on!” Wawrinka finished off the game with a kicker first-serve that jumped away from Roger-Vasselin, who tried unsuccessfully with two hands to spear it.

Wawrinka would go on to win the match in straight sets against a crafty and versatile player who had won one of their three previous meetings. Not averse to changing the pace with a sliced backhand, or sneaking in behind a chip service return to take his chances at the net, the second installment of Edouard’s hefty last name could just as easily be “Vaseline.”

“He's always tough to play,” Wawrinka would say later. “He's aggressive player. He's serving well, returning well, and always trying to put pressure on the game.”

Roger-Vasselin’s win over Wawrinka occurred in the fall of 2013, and as we all know Stan is now a different man. Back then, he was better known as his countryman Roger Federer’s wingman. You know, the loyal friend who knew when to defer to his betters and who, despite being barrel-chested and capable of hitting a tennis ball so hard you expected it to bleed, knew his place in the game. And that wasn’t at the top.

What’s most striking about Wawrinka’s game now is how easily he bears his burden—if that’s the right word—as the game’s newly minted Grand Slam champion. That sense of belonging in his current, high station was evident in the way Wawrinka carried himself on the court. But keep in mind that the act and attitude would not be nearly so easily or convincingly pulled off if his game didn’t speak as authoritatively as Wawrinka did when he said:

“I’m just doing my job. Simple. I'm just doing my job, you know. My job is to play tennis, try to play the best possible, and to do that I have to practice well. That's what I'm doing with Magnus (Norman, Wawrinka’s coach). I stay focused on my tennis, and it's quite simple.”

Of course, winning tennis matches isn’t always so cut-and-dried a proposition. There’s this little matter of the other guy. Roger-Vasselin played well today, and he had an opportunity to make Wawrinka’s life complicated in the ninth game of the first set, with the score knotted at 4-all.

In that game, Wawrinka fell behind 15-40 thanks to two fine, probing returns by R-V and a third-shot, forehand cross-court error by Wawrinka. At that point, Wawrinka’s heavy first serve suddenly abandoned him. Roger-Vasselin pressed the attack at the next opportunity, but Wawrinka passed him with a rifle-shot backhand. Again Wawrinka failed to get his first serve in the box, but he fielded Roger-Vasselin’s subsequent return—it was a good one, mind you—and belted a monstrous cross-court winner.

From deuce, Wawrinka hit a near-ace second serve right down the pipe and, although he was obliged to play another deuce, he eventually won the game with an inside-out backhand winner—again behind the second serve. “Stan don’t need no stinkin’ first serve,” he seemed to be saying as he went up, 5-4.

Wawrinka went on to break R-V in the 12th game with a great display of big-boy tennis. Bang, bang, bang—suddenly Roger-Vasselin was down love-40. He improbably worked his way back to deuce, but allowed Wawrinka a fourth set point. Yet another forehand blast by Wawrinka ended it.

In the second set, Wawrinka broke early to build a cozy lead. He played a very loose seventh game to give the break back, and played the next two games on cruise control. Leading 5-4, he boxed Roger-Vasselin into a 15-40 corner. He converted the second match point with a massive forehand winner, his “Come on” resounding throughout the stadium for a split second before the crowd errupted in applause.

Wawrinka denies that much has changed in his daily life as a result of his big breakthrough in Melbourne. “People are expecting more from me,”  he said. “But from myself, it's the same. The pressure is the same. I always put a lot of pressure on myself and always want to win matches and play well. I don't think it's different from before.”

A bit later in the interview he added, almost as an afterthought: “I know now that I can beat everybody.”

That, of course, is a priceless nugget of knowledge that not everyone in Wawrinka’s field can claim, and he’s clearly making the most of it.

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