No. 5: Failing Best

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We’ve heard of late-blooming players, but what about late-blooming rivalries? That’s what Novak Djokovic vs. Stan Wawrinka has become over the last 24 months. From 2006 to 2013, it was no contest at all: During those years the Serb beat the Swiss 10 straight times, and few of the matches were close. But starting with their late-night marathon at the Australian Open in 2013, won by Djokovic 12-10 in the fifth, they’ve gone on the road as The Nole and Stan Show at the Slams. Djokovic won a second five-setter in the U.S. Open semifinals last year, before Wawrinka finally turned the tables with a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 win in the quarterfinals in Melbourne this past January. 

At four hours, the match might not have been quite as epic, or as long, as the previous year’s, but not many are. Nole-Stan II was still dramatic enough to come in at No. 5 on TENNIS.com's countdown of the 10 best matches of 2014. Here’s a look at the 20-minute, two-part highlight reel above. This one deserves its intermission.

*****

—At the time, the match was a stunner from the Djokovic side. Not only was it his first loss to Wawrinka in eight years, it was his first loss before the semis at a major since 2010, and his first loss at the Australian Open in 26 matches. Wawrinka, meanwhile, was trying to reach just his second Grand Slam semifinal after 10 years on tour. His career record against the Big 3 to that point was a preposterously dismal 3-44.

—Djokovic’s loss is more stunning after the way he plays in the early going. In 2013, he had lost the first set 6-1 to Wawrinka, before winning in five; here he wins the first set 6-2, before losing in five. But that's one of the beauties of three-out-of-five-set matches. You don’t have to panic, as player or fan, even if you’re slow coming out of the gate. A Grand Slam match isn’t a sprint, and it doesn’t have to be a marathon; but it is a test. This time, it was as if Djokovic didn't work out his nerves, or his bad play, early enough. Even when he grabbed the lead in the fifth set, his errors were still fresh in his mind, and his arm.

—I sat in Rod Laver Arena for most of this one, and my only vivid memory of it is the botched volley by Djokovic on match point. It was such a such a shock that it wiped out the four hours of play that came before. Judging by these highlights, the second-most-crucial shot was a Wawrinka winner from three sets earlier. At 3-3 in the second, you can see Djokovic straining to get ahead, and grab a (probably insurmountable) two-set lead. He gets to deuce in that game, but no farther, because Wawrinka ends a long rally with a down-the-line backhand winner. He doesn’t hit it perfectly, but it catches the outside of the sideline and inspires a cry of “Magnifique!” from Henri Leconte in the commentator’s box. It would turn out to be one of the shots of the year, for Stan and the ATP. 

—All players are confidence players, but Stan seems to be a conviction player. Some days he comes out with his blood in his eye; other days there’s a glaze of purposelessness there. It’s easy to say in retrospect that he had that conviction from the start in this match, but I do remember thinking there was something different about Wawrinka that night. He had lost two straight five-setters to Djokovic, but coming down the stretch in the decider of this one, it somehow felt like he had the edge. He was, quite simply, due.

This is what I wrote about Stan’s play that night:

“It took Wawrinka a set to show the Aussie fans that he had indeed improved in the last 12 months—he may have even improved in the last two. Djokovic beat him easily in London in November, but starting in the second set tonight, it was Wawrinka who was the stronger player, and who had the world No. 2 at his mercy....The crucial difference this time was Wawrinka’s serve. He hit 17 aces, and every one of them came exactly when he needed it. This time it was Wawrinka who won the key points; he finished with 153 in total, Djokovic with eight more at 161.”

—Still, who would have bet on Stan when he lost the fourth set and went down a break in the fifth? Who would have bet against Djokovic, the master of the marathon, after his multiple primal screams at the start of the fifth? This time, though, he couldn’t leave a night’s worth of hesitant, erratic play behind and raise his game when it mattered. Up 2-1 in the fifth, Nole stunned the world by making four unforced errors with his forehand. And then, match point down, he served and volleyed and made the mistake everyone remembers. His forehand volley wide was his 60th error of the night, and the Shank of the Season.

Afterward, Djokovic was more philosophical than gutted (can you be philosophically gutted?):

“I can say that I was lucky with some shots last year in our match,” Novak said. “This time it was him who had luck a little bit....He took his opportunities. He deserved this win today. I congratulate him absolutely....Obviously I’m disappointed, at this stage. But tomorrow is a new day. I have to accept that you can’t win all the matches that you play.”

By which Djokovic meant: If you go five sets with a guy enough times, you’re going to lose one of them eventually. That level-headedness in the moment served him well. While this looked like a “crack in the Big 4” at the time, it would be Djokovic who would finish the year No. 1 again.

—"I’m very, very, very, very happy to win,” said Wawrinka, who admitted that he had begun to cramp from nerves in the fifth set. This was, you may remember, his “Fail Better” moment. He had tattooed those words on his arm, and he explained what they meant to him after the quarterfinal.

“Last year I took a lot of confidence with those matches with Novak,” Wawrinka said of his defeats to Djokovic in 2013. “Was really close. I was playing good. I came on the court tonight with a lot of confidence in myself, knowing that if I play my best game, I always have a chance against him.”

“They are just [better] players than us, than all the rest,” Stan said of the Big 3. “That’s why they always won everything. You have to deal with that. I know that the only thing I can control is what I’m doing off the court. I always try to improve, to find solutions against the top players. It’s never easy.”

Wawrinka would keep finding solutions in Oz. In the semis, he beat Tomas Berdych in part by intimidating him at a crucial stage in the match. In the final, he held on against an injured Rafael Nadal, and his own escalating anxiety, to win the title. 

Give some credit to the Big 3 for helping Wawrinka find his solution to them. Normally tennis players need to win to gain confidence; Wawrinka found his the only way he could, by losing.


The Top 10 Matches of 2014

No. 1: Djokovic d. Federer at Wimbledon
No. 2: Sharapova d. Halep at Roland Garros
No. 3: Kvitova d. V. Williams at Wimbledon
No. 4: S. Williams d. Wozniacki at WTA Finals
No. 5: Wawrinka d. Djokovic at Australian Open
No. 6: Murray d. Robredo at Valencia
No. 7: Federer d. Wawrinka at ATP World Tour Finals
No. 8: Federer d. Monfils at U.S. Open
No. 9: Kvitova d. Kerber at Fed Cup
No. 10: Nishikori d. Ferrer at Madrid

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