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TenniStory: Stan Wawrinka

ROME—Stan Wawrinka had just wrapped up an extended early practice on Court 6 at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia. After post-hit conditioning, a shower and lunch, he sat down for an interview with my colleague Heath Woodlief.

When rain picked up, our crew cut short the “portraits” portion of Wawrinka’s shoot in the city, where the 37-year-old shared his take on the current state of the NFT world—one he entered when sidelined from match play for nearly 13 months.

“Too often, projects are rushed. It’s about doing it right,” he told me.

It’s a simple mindset, yet one full of substance that can apply to any of Wawrinka’s business interests. Namely, the one that still provides pulsating passion, a career on the ATP Tour.

Samuel Beckett’s mantra, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” always resonated with Wawrinka, and in 2014, he tattooed the Irishman's words on his left forearm to carry it permanently. Long before a left foot injury took control last year, the Swiss all but cemented future enshrinement at the International Tennis Hall Of Fame after bringing the quote to life.

In each of his three major title runs, Wawrinka defeated Novak Djokovic, and as he did against the Serbian, Wawrinka overturned lopsided head-to-head series with Rafael Nadal (in the 2014 Australian Open final) and Roger Federer (in the 2015 Roland Garros quarterfinals) to step up in grand fashion. Along the way, he cracked the Top 3 of the ATP rankings, amassed well over 500 wins and, with Federer, helped his nation win its first Davis Cup title in 2014.

Through his journey of returning to the competition arena this spring, Wawrinka continues to riff off Beckett’s words of wisdom. His comeback approach centers around patience and consistency. Shortcuts are fiction novels Wawrinka refuses to read. For “The Walk Doesn’t Stop” is the figurative autobiography he pens when committing to the fine details, or the right work.

“You only fail when you stop trying,” he declares. “I always have in my mind that tennis is a game. Many players forget it when they became pros. You may not be there yet, but you are closer than you were yesterday.”

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On the grounds of the Foro Italico, we had the privilege of being on court with Wawrinka and coach Daniel Vallverdu for a training session to see just exactly where the former French Open champion was at. Much of their energy in a solo session emphasized targets. Among the load included a rapid, short-court crosscourt backhand drill, an exercise that involved aiming to produce the same shot shape from defensive positions at both corners of the baseline, and specific serve placements in the deuce and ad courts. Unlocking stability in a player short on reps is the ongoing goal of this structure.

“He hasn’t played at this level and these amounts of sets on a daily basis for a long time. It’s just about being able to keep the consistency throughout the whole practice,” explains Vallverdu. “A big part of his game is pushing the guys around, playing heavy and looking for the right chances to end the point. So it’s about trying to find those dynamics during the points where he feels that he’s in control, but without taking too much risk.”

Inserts Wawrinka, “I knew from the beginning that it will take me time to be back at the certain level. I need time to feel good physically. I need time to feel good on the practice court. I need matches to also feel the tension, to feel the game.”

After 30 minutes, Aslan Karatsev joined for a slew of practice games. As the two traded strokes, Vallverdu’s limited his words to positive support. “Allez!” “Bravo.” “Nice one, Stanley.”

During a brief break towards the end, he crouched down as his pupil sat on the bench evaluating the morning.

“As soon as I stop to think too much, the point is over. I’m too early or too late,” shared Wawrinka.

“When you start thinking, it’s coming more from being able to keep the simple focus,” responded Vallverdu. “It just comes with time. Find the small things that keep you in the zone. Don’t overthink it. It’s going to come.”

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Wawrinka's 44 wins at Roland Garros are tied for the most in his career among the four majors, along with the US Open.

Wawrinka's 44 wins at Roland Garros are tied for the most in his career among the four majors, along with the US Open.

Before arriving in the Italian capital, Wawrinka had stepped back out twice. Having posted six games in his return at the Marbella Challenger, the Lausanne native brought more to the table at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. Though he lost to Alexander Bublik, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, the former champion was a break-point conversion away from putting the match on his racquet.

Four weeks later in Rome, Wawrinka trailed Reilly Opelka, a 2021 semifinalist, by a set and a break. But with the Stadium Court house urging him on, Stan kept fighting. Down 2-4 in the second set, he wiped away a break point and soon got himself back on serve. At 5-5, he survived six more break points in a gritty 20-point game to hold. In delivering greater consistency and more moments in that zone Vallverdu emphasized, Wawrinka went on to secure his own 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 rally from the brink.

“I love the crowd above all when I enter the court,” says Wawrinka. “I love the game. I love the process to be able to play matches, to play in front of fans. I love the immersion that I get from that and it’s one [of] many reasons that gave me the answer that I wanted to come back.”

He added a second three-set win over Laslo Djere in the second round. The next day, eventual champion Djokovic served up a masterclass in consistency to end Wawrinka’s bid. With it, his attention shifted to a reunion with Roland Garros.

In 2003, Wawrinka captured the boys’ singles trophy in Paris; 12 years later, the crown jewel of the clay courts, the Coupe des Mousquetaires, was his. On eight occasions, Wawrinka has reached the second week of Roland Garros, and he will surely be a sentimental favorite among those in the stands.

“It's going to be special, because I did a long part of my rehab in Paris with a team of doctors and physios. So it's going to be great playing back again there,” he says. “A reason why you play tennis, too, is to play those big tournaments.”

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TrustTheProcess has featured as a recurrent hashtag on Wawrinka’s social media accounts in recent months. His intent is clear: this chapter is not one for a drive-by to say, It’s been real, I’m out. There is a fire fueling his belief that quality tennis remains in the tank, and accepting each of the steps, forwards and backwards, will only help Wawrinka unleash the game that previously propelled him to glory on the sport’s most celebrated stages.

“I did way more than what I expected in my career and I can easily stop here and still be happy and proud with what I've achieved. But that's not what I want,” he says. “I still want to compete at the highest level.

“I believe that I still have some good results in me, some good tournaments to get. That's what I'm aiming and trying to work for.”

Wawrinka isn’t rushing his progression, and neither should we. As the man who memorably won the French Open in an iconic pair of checkered shorts deserves the opportunity to do it right—the Stanimal way.