NEW YORK—“I don’t know what’s happening right now.”

These were Stan Wawrinka’s first words to the audience in Arthur Ashe Stadium after his 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win over Novak Djokovic for the U.S. Open title on Sunday night.

On the one hand, you could forgive Wawrinka’s bewilderment. The 31-year-old was making his 12th trip to Flushing Meadows, and this was the first time he had reached the final, let alone won it. And in Djokovic, he had just beaten an opponent who had won 19 of their previous 23 matches.

On the other hand, Wawrinka also knew exactly what was happening, because he had been in exactly this situation two times before. It was the third time he had played a major final against a No. 1-ranked opponent, and it was the third time he had walked away with the champion’s trophy. After his wins over Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final, Djokovic in the 2015 French Open final and Djokovic again on Sunday, Wawrinka and the rest of us really can’t act surprised by anything he does anymore.

We also can’t say that he’s just a hot-and-cold, hit-and-miss slugger anymore. Wawrinka certainly did his share of slugging in this match; he hit 46 winners in 44 games, and drew more than his usual share of oohs and aahs from the capacity crowd when he unsheathed his down-the-line backhand. The new roof over Ashe made that shot resound even more forcefully than it has here in the past.

Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

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But Wawrinka didn’t bash his way to this victory. He was also the headier, more stubborn, and ultimately better competitor when it counted most. Wawrinka won just one more point than Djokovic (144 to 143), but he made that translate into a two-set advantage. He saved 14 of 17 break points, and bounced back from a tight opening-set loss against a player who was 51-0 in U.S. Open matches in which he had won the first set. Wawrinka fought off cramps in the third set, and held his nerve through two potentially momentum-killing medical time-outs by Djokovic in the fourth.

As he had all fortnight, Wawrinka competed aggressively, but with very little of the tetchiness that has distracted him in the past. In the third round, he saved a match point against Dan Evans, and he lost the first set two other times.

“I think this Grand Slam was the most painful, physically and mentally, Grand Slam that I ever played,” said Wawrinka, who came into the match having spent 17 hours on court at the Open, nine more than Djokovic. “I was trying to be tough with myself. Trying not to show anything. Not to show any pain....I was suffering on the court, but I’m happy and proud of what I have achieved today.”

The way Wawrinka won the crucial third set was practically Djokovichian in its mix of persistence and opportunism.

Wawrinka went up 3-0; Djokovic brought it back to 3-3. From there, with both men knowing the importance of the set, they see-sawed toward what looked to be another tiebreaker. There were long games, tough holds, big winners, strange errors, and a lot of dogged defense from both men; Wawrinka retrieved nearly as well as Djokovic tonight. Yet Stan seemed on the verge of losing it when he screamed, “He doesn’t give me anything!” even after he had won a point.

Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

Normally, this is just the type of set that Djokovic walks away with, often with a quick break at the end. In last year’s final, he pulled out a similarly chaotic, momentum-less third set against Roger Federer. But this time it was Wawrinka who ambushed Djokovic. Down 30-0 on the Serb’s serve at 5-6, he came to break for the set with a big forehand down the line.

“He was the more courageous player in the decisive moments,” Djokovic said. “...He stepped in and played aggressive where I was kind of more waiting for things to happen.”

Djokovic’s serve was off; he double faulted seven times and made just 51 percent of his first serves. He said afterward that injuries before the event had hurt him on this shot. Worse was his play on break points.

“I didn’t take my chances,” Djokovic said. “I had many break points where I was in the rally, where I had a second shot, where I just missed some easy balls. That’s it.

“Sometimes you get that kind of uncomfortable feeling, and you’re not able to, you know, let everything flow as you want it.”

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Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

Wawrinka was in the flow, but it took him nearly a set to get there. That’s why, he says, he has so much more success at the best-of-five-set Slams than the best-of-three-set Masters 1000s.

“In Grand Slam you play every two days, five-set match,” Wawrinka said. “You have a little bit more time to make mistake...Every match I won in a Grand Slam I take confidence of that, and when I arrive in a final I know my game is there.”

To me, the most telling comment on the match came from Djokovic during the trophy ceremony.

“He was tougher mentally,” Djokovic said, “he knew what to do.”

“He knew what to do”: It’s a phrase that used to run through my mind when I watched Nadal play Federer in major-title matches 10 years ago. Federer was No. 1, and he had the more complete game, but Nadal knew exactly what his advantage was: His topspin forehand to Federer’s one-handed backhand. Having that go-to play available at all times made the tactics easy. Federer, on the other hand, had no single, easily exploitable edge on Rafa. Should he come in? Should he slice more? Should he try more drop shots? Nobody ever found out, including Federer.

Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

Stan Wawrinka, the game’s big hitter and competitor, claims his third major title at the U.S. Open

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A similar dynamic has developed between Djokovic and Wawrinka at the majors. While Djokovic is the No. 1 player, and the one with the more consistent all-around game, it’s Wawrinka who has the edge in power, pace and weight of shot. Any ball that Djokovic hits hard, Wawrinka can hit back harder. In that sense, facing Nole must be liberating for Stan: He can’t do anything other than play the game that comes naturally to him.

“He deserves to be in the mix, no doubt about it,” Djokovic said, when asked if Wawrinka has created a new Big 5 on the men’s tour. “He’s a big-match player.”

As for Stan, he’s happy to admit that the original Big 4 have helped him with their example.

“Because of you, I am where I am today,” Wawrinka said to Djokovic, in a moment of warmth on the trophy stand. It was a (successful) attempt to relieve the tension that had built up between them during Djokovic’s two late medical time-outs.

As sturdy as Stan has made himself, it’s easy to forget that he didn’t start that way. According to him, old nerves die hard.

“Today, before the final,” Wawrinka said, “I was really nervous like never before. I was shaking in the locker [room]....I was completely shaking. But the only thing I was convinced with myself that my game was there.”

“Put fight on the court and you’ll have a chance to win,” he told himself.

When it was over, Wawrinka said he didn’t know what was happening. But he does. Djokovic and the rest of us know it, too.

After 12 years on tour and three Slam wins, Stan is no longer just a big hitter; he’s a big competitor, too. And while he may not always be the man, he’ll never be a fluke again.