Saturday is a special day in the tennis world as one of the most accomplished players on the tour - and someone who’s keeping people smiling through these tough times, too - celebrates his 35th birthday.
Until 2014, Stan Wawrinka was a consistent presence near the top of the game, reaching the quarterfinals or better at Grand Slams four times and going as high as No. 8 on the ATP rankings.
But at the 2014 Australian Open, everything changed.
“To win a Slam, to be No. 3, both for me is a big surprise,” Wawrinka said after his breakthrough run in Melbourne, which wasn’t just his first Grand Slam title, it also put him into the Top 5 for the first time.
“It’s an amazing feeling. I saw Roger [Federer] winning so many Grand Slams in the past, so now it’s my turn to win one. If you look at the past 10 years, except for [Juan Martin] Del Potro, it’s only been the top four guys winning the Grand Slams. I’ll need time to realize what I’ve done these two weeks.”
And that was just the beginning: Wawrinka followed up his 2014 Australian Open title with two more Grand Slam titles at the 2015 French Open and 2016 US Open. He defeated the reigning World No. 1 in all three finals, too - Rafael Nadal in Melbourne and Novak Djokovic in Paris and New York.
He made one more Grand Slam final at the 2017 French Open, beating then-No. 1 Andy Murray in the semifinals before falling to Nadal in the final - had he won the final, he would have risen to No. 2.
But then, disaster struck. A left knee injury caused him to end his season after Wimbledon, and he had surgery in August. He couldn’t defend his US Open title, and though he returned at the start of 2018, he fell first round at Roland Garros with finals points coming off. He dropped out of the Top 200.
“It’s been tough, really tough, to get back to the place to be able to play again,” he said at his first tournament back at the 2018 Australian Open. “I know I’m not at the level I want to be yet because it’s a long process to get there, but I’m happy with the way the knee is handling. Being back is a victory.”
There were more bumps to come - he missed three months of action in the spring with another left knee injury - but he just kept fighting, breaking back into the Top 100 in September of 2018 and the Top 50 in February of 2019, and over the last 12 months he’s truly found some of his best tennis again, reaching the quarterfinals at three of the last four majors and getting back into the Top 20.
At the Australian Open this year he took out No. 4-ranked Daniil Medvedvev in the fourth round, and afterwards said it was the best he’s felt in a long time. “I think the last time I played so well was before the surgery,” he said. “I think since the off-season, my level is really high. Physically I’m moving better than last year. I’m improving. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s the best I’ve played since before the surgery.”
Whenever the tennis season resumes, Wawrinka is definitely going to be a big threat at the biggest events on the tennis calendar again, given how many times he’s risen to the occasion in the past.
And speaking of rising to the occasion, the Swiss is definitely one of the best follows on social media at the moment - from workout routines to cooking to dinner dates with giant teddy bears, he’s keeping tennis fans smiling through the tough times people across the world are going through at the moment.
Here are just a few of Wawrinka’s recent posts: