The comeback player of the year in men’s tennis has indisputably been Novak Djokovic. The Serbian stylist was sidelined with an ailing elbow over the second half of 2017, and looked like a pale imitation of himself during the early months of 2018. He then stormed back to supremacy, with triumphs at both Wimbledon and the US Open.
Andy Murray, meanwhile, was out of circulation for even longer than Djokovic, also stepping aside after Wimbledon last summer, but was unable to compete again officially for nearly a year, as he dealt with hip surgery and a diminishment in his speed.
Since Murray has returned, he has simply not been the same player, and perhaps he never will be.
That brings us to another of the sport’s front-line players who has battled long and assiduously all year long to reestablish his identity. I am referring to Stan Wawrinka, the burly Swiss competitor who has been coping yet not thriving since he returned to the tour following significant left knee issues in 2017, including two surgeries. Just like Djokovic and Murray, Wawrinka had to close down his 2017 season after Wimbledon. He headed into 2018 with high hopes, while knowing the task of reinventing himself was not going to be easy, realizing that his mobility might not be what it once was, understanding that striking fear into the minds of his rivals would not be automatic.
Wawrinka’s complicated and often disconcerting journey through this season has been more reminiscent of Murray’s than of Djokovic’s. There have been brief stretches of brilliance, times when his explosive shotmaking arsenal has taken him close to his former heights, periods of encouragement when he looked like the “Stanimal” of old. But on the whole, 2018 has not lived up to Wawrinka’s expectations. His match record for the year has been less than stellar at 17-17, and the numbers tell the story of a man often questioning himself, a player not entirely sure of what he can do, and a competitor searching for a renewed sense of confidence.
Coming into his first-round contest on Monday at the Shanghai Masters against Borna Coric, Wawrinka had played 16 tournaments in 2018, starting with a second-round Australian Open loss to the unheralded Tennys Sandgren.
That was an inauspicious start. Wawrinka then went to the semis of an ATP World Tour 250 event in Sofia, but lost early in Rotterdam before retiring from his opening-round meeting in Marseille. With his knee ailing again, Wawrinka wisely elected to stay away from the circuit for the better part of three months. When he resumed activity, he lost to Stevie Johnson in the first round of Rome. He won a match in Geneva, but fell in the first round of Roland Garros against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. During the grass-court season, he was 2-3, and he bowed out in the second round of Wimbledon. At that point in the season, Wawrinka’s match record was 6-10.
Over the summer, Wawrinka seemed more sprightly, and his form improved considerably. After losing his first-round match in Washington to Donald Young, Wawrinka moved into the round of 16 in Toronto, and played with verve and deep determination against Rafael Nadal before the Spaniard came through in two hard fought and remarkably well played sets. On that memorable evening, inspired against an old and premier rival—wanting to remind himself and all of his boosters that his best tennis was good enough to threaten even the No. 1 ranked player in the world—Wawrinka was outstanding in defeat.
He then followed up productively in Cincinnati, and once more he went to work in a big match under the bright lights in a sparkling evening session. Facing Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, Wawrinka nearly toppled his renowned rival in a pulsating encounter. Wawrinka won the first set and was two points from what would have been an exhilarating triumph, but his powerhouse display went unrewarded. For the 21st time in 24 career clashes with his countryman, Federer toppled Wawrinka, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-2.
Press conference: Stan Wawrinka in Cincinnati
Eager to build on those uplifting hard-court performances against Nadal and Federer, Wawrinka advanced to the third round of the US Open, upending Grigor Dimitrov in the first round, just as he had done at Wimbledon. But he was ousted by Milos Raonic, losing to the big-serving Canadian for the second time in a row after taking their first four career contests.
Perhaps undismayed by that setback, Wawrinka was a semifinalist in St. Petersburg, Russia, but lost disappointingly to the explosive left-hander Martin Klizan after capturing the opening set of that clash. Similarly in Tokyo, Wawrinka was victorious in the first set against the charismatic, left-handed Canadian Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16 at Tokyo last week, but faded thereafter. (Highlights above.)
That has been the nature of Wawrinka in 2018, elevating his game and his spirits on his finest afternoons, drifting into doubt and indifference at other junctures, fighting all the while to restore his self-conviction and rebuild his game. Through it all, he has surely been preoccupied with his knee. In his first-round appointment against Coric at Shanghai, Wawrinka once more put himself in an enviable position against a formidable adversary now ranked among the Top 20 in the world.
Wawrinka broke a 3-3 deadlock against the 21-year-old Croatian, flowing freely to take three of the next four games to secure the first set. At 3-3 in the second set, Wawrinka was close to finding daylight. He had a couple of break points in that pivotal seventh game, but missed a blocked forehand return on one and was aced on the other.
Having missed his opportunity, Wawrinka later served at 4-5 to stay in the set. At 0-30, he aced Coric out wide in the deuce court, but then the Swiss sent a flat forehand crosscourt long. He managed to save one set point, but, at 30-40, Wawrinka was caught off guard by an excellent forehand inside in return from Coric. That shot landed safely in the corner for a winner. It was one set all.
Curiously, Wawrinka was not playing this match at all on his terms. Coric was largely setting the tempo, directing his groundstrokes with a healthy margin for error and good depth, preventing the Swiss from finding the necessary openings to blast trademark winners off both flanks. The famed Wawrinka one-handed backhand was not the crackling shot we have grown accustomed to seeing with such regularity in his heyday.
Serving at 1-2 in the third set, Wawrinka was subdued and seemingly discouraged. He fought off two break points, but could not escape on the third, driving a forehand wide down the line off a solid return from Coric. Wawrinka took Coric to deuce in the following game, but he swiftly conceded the next two points. An unwavering Coric reached 4-1 and never looked back, winning 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. In his last two service games, Coric allowed Wawrinka only one point.
In a third successive tournament, Wawrinka had been beaten after winning the first set. It has been an arduous campaign for the 33-year-old in 2018. In many ways, it has been a disjointed season. He has gone to just two semifinals in his 17 tournaments. Those are not the standards of a fellow who has won three Grand Slam tournaments in his distinguished career. He knows he is better than that. He realizes that being ranked No. 69 in the world is not where he wants to be. He surely wants to make amends in the coming season. He must yearn to no longer be worried about his knee.
Think of Wawrinka at his zenith. In 2014, he struck down both Djokovic and Nadal to win his first major at the Australian Open. The following year, he eclipsed Federer in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros and stunned Djokovic in the final, playing perhaps the signature match of his career. And in 2016 at Flushing Meadows, Wawrinka ruled at the US Open, coming from a set down to beat Djokovic in a four-set final for the second time in a major.
Even in 2017, he remained in the front line of his profession across the first half of the season. He made it to the penultimate round of the Australian Open, losing a five-set duel with Federer that he could well have won. At Roland Garros, defending his crown on clay in Paris, he got to the final again. This time, however, he was routed in straight sets by a ruthlessly efficient Nadal.
When Wawrinka took that decisive loss to the Spaniard, it was apparent that his knee—already a serious problem earlier in the year—was getting worse. In August 2017, he had the two surgeries on his left knee. Ever since, this appealing individual has been a diminished performer, understandably and justifiably so.
Will he ever re-emerge in the forefront of the sport? The jury is still out. In my view, 2019 will provide a definitive answer about what is in store for Wawrinka. Perhaps with some tough training and the setting of new goals, maybe with an honest reflection on his inconsistency in 2018, arguably with a renewed spirit, full physical health and reestablished priorities, Wawrinka can put himself back into the mix and challenge once more for the game’s most prestigious titles. It won’t be easy, and it might be the case that he has moved permanently past his prime. But I expect Wawrinka to make a concerted effort to play with a sense of urgency in 2019, to do whatever he can to make his presence known, to leave no stone unturned as he attempts to revive his career.
Only the toughest skeptics would count him out.
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