Lonely Near the Top

by: Steve Tignor | March 12, 2014

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—When you're famous, they cheer differently for you. Stan Wawrinka, the world’s newest Grand Slam champion, rifled a forehand winner early in his fourth-round match against Kevin Anderson today and the fans went, “Oooh,” and “Ummm hmmm," as if this was what they expected to see from him. When he missed, they acted like they couldn’t believe it. “Oh, Stan!” a woman near me shrieked after he hit a forehand long on a break point. It sounded like she was rooting for her own son. A few points later, she offered a little motherly—or perhaps just womanly—support, American-style: “C’mon Stan, baby!

With his win over Rafael Nadal in Melbourne, Wawrinka began to mean something to people, and to the game, that he hadn’t meant before. There’s a new connection with fans who were inspired by his Cinderella “fail better” story in Oz. A regular denizen of the outer courts here in the past, today Wawrinka was front and center on the stadium court, the anchor match in a day session that also included Roger Federer and Andy Murray. 

More important, Stan now means something different to his opponents. They may also have been inspired by his breakthrough Down Under, but what they’re really motivated to do now is beat him. When you’re the favorite, the hunted, you play differently—you win differently. You go in knowing that your opponent has less to lose, and will probably attack with everything he’s got. Top players like Nadal and Pete Sampras have tended to bide their time and pounce on that one break of serve when they see the chance. They rely on their superiority, as well as their opponent’s nerves, in the clutch.

As the tight first set between Anderson and Wawrinka progressed, you could see that Stan would have to win it in just that way, by threading a narrow path through at the end. But he never found the path. Wawrinka had two break points at 4-4; Anderson erased one with an ace, and on the other Stan sent a makeable forehand long. In the tiebreaker, his back tightened up, and his game fell apart. When Wawrinka took a medical timeout and went down a break in the second, it looked like his day was over.

Then, for the first time, Wawrinka showed some of the reserve confidence we expect from our Grand Slam champions. With Anderson serving at 3-2, Wawrinka hit a backhand pass winner to break at love, and followed it with a love hold. Everything we saw in Australia still seemed to be intact: Wawrinka was showing more positive emotion, and striking when he saw the chance. Anderson, who double-faulted eight times, was getting a creaky elbow at the thought of beating him. Serving at 4-5, Anderson threw in two unforced errors and was broken. When the South African's last forehand sailed long, Wawrinka pumped his fist as if he had never left Melbourne.

But weren’t back in Oz anymore. Wawrinka walked back out and played a poor service game to open the third set. He was broken, and was never in it after that. By the end, Stan had unraveled completely; down match point at 1-5, he walked to the baseline with a ball in his mouth. The hunted had been caught. Anderson handed Wawrinka his first loss of 2014, 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-1.

Afterward, Wawrinka refused to blame any physical issue.

“The back was not the problem at all,” he said. “Because I won the set after. It’s not unusual. It’s just that I’m tight and tired.” 

Wawrinka instead focused on his attitude and preparation.

“I’m more disappointed in myself,” he said. “I was tired mentally, but that’s not the problem. I should just accept and be more positive. I think I was negative on all the match. I was complaining a lot about my serve, about the way I was playing, and with that, I don’t deserve to win matches. It was more about the way I was trying to find solutions. I’m not really happy with that.”

Asked about the added pressure of being a Slam champion, Wawrinka admitted that it exists.

“Now it’s a little bit different for sure,” he said. “There is more expectation from tournament, from people, from fan. But I don’t think I will put more pressure on myself.”

Wawrinka flew here after taking three weeks off and attending a fashion show in Italy. He said the mental and physical effort required to come back had left him tired and flat. 

They say that recognizing a problem is the first step to finding a solution, and Stan seemed to recognize and honestly diagnose the fact that he had a bad attitude today. In Melbourne, he had repeated that most Nadalian of phrases, “finding solutions,” like a mantra. It was part of the new way he was handling adversity on court. Today Stan sounded chagrined not that he had lost to Kevin Anderson, or that he had played poorly, but that he had let his negativity get the best of him, as he had so often in past years.

But that’s what the men’s elite does: At the end of sets, they find those narrow paths through matches; they figure out a way around the big servers and fit grinders that they must face every day. And they don’t let down for a game once they’ve won a set. Finding solutions isn’t a conscious effort for the best players; it’s a habit.

And when they do make it through and walk away with a tough win, the crowd is there to go, “Umm hmmm, I knew he would do it in the end."

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