Seven years ago in Melbourne, a warm January Sunday night had become an early Monday morning. At a hotel within walking distance of Rod Laver Arena, the newly crowned Australian Open champion entered the lobby and took a seat at a small table. His coach soon joined him, accompanied by another friend.
Two tables over, we from Tennis Channel each looked his way, held our drinks in our right hands and raised them in a gentle toast aimed at the victor. “Well done, Stan,” said one of our quartet.
“Thank you,” said Stan Wawrinka, no doubt happy on the inside; but also, per usual, bearing a look of fatigue, a weary pallor that always suggested he’d not quite gotten enough sleep.
In Melbourne that year, Wawrinka earned an epic five-set win over Novak Djokovic in the quarters and administered a shocking drubbing to Rafael Nadal in the finals. At the late tennis age of 28, Wawrinka had won his first major. Dare anyone at that moment imagine that over the next two years he’d snap up two more and suddenly build a Hall of Fame-worthy resume?
On Wednesday, Wawrinka gave his all once more, inside John Cain Arena versus 55th-ranked Marton Fucsovics. But for the third time in the last four years, the 17th-seeded Wawrinka tumbled out in the second round, losing the match by the remarkable score of 7-5, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 7-6 (9). Having rallied from two sets to love down and a 5-3 deficit in the fifth, Wawrinka held three match points in the decisive tiebreaker at 9-6, only to lose five straight points.
Still, it was a remarkable late-career effort from the 35-year-old. Over the course of three hours and 59 minutes, he’d nearly fought back successfully from two sets to love down for the seventh time.
“Always a difficult battle against my opponent that we play few times in the past, always really tough match,” said Wawrinka. “Today was the same. Not the best level for me, but again, I was fighting, I had some chance to finish the match, I didn't finish, I hesitate a little bit when I had the match point and I lost it.”
But clearly, it was also a battle waged near the midnight stage of a tremendous career. In recent years, Wawrinka has been slowed by injuries and the decline that comes with age for most players not named Novak, Rafa or Roger. But there remains Wawrinka’s exceptional work ethic and career-long devotion to competition. This was a man who, one year by April, had competed in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and North America.
Then again, who can blame Wawrinka for taking his act on the road so extensively? As the saying goes, no man is a prophet in his homeland. This was savagely true for Wawrinka. In his native Switzerland, measuring up to the competition was impossible. When the local great is Roger Federer, Wawrinka no doubt could relate to what it must be like to be another rock band from Liverpool constantly staring at roads and venues cited in Beatles songs.
But life in the shadow of an icon didn’t faze Wawrinka. His worldview had been shaped years earlier, when he’d grown up on a family farm that also was home to dozens of men and women with mental disabilities.
“I was lucky to grow up surrounded by nature and animals, to be outside all the time and to work on a big farm with my dad,” Wawrinka said in a 2013 story in the Swiss newspaper, Le Matin. “By growing up at a center for people with special needs, I learned to always fight hard to achieve what I want. In this regard, I was incredibly lucky.”
Luck on one hand, a blistering one-handed backhand on the other. The backhand eventually was accompanied by a beefed-up forehand, an improved serve and, most of all, a superb level of fitness that greatly enhanced Wawrinka’s mental toughness. All of this added up a remarkable mix of physicality and artistry. Toss Wawrinka’s late arrival to the elite and you have all the ingredients for a special brand of popularity. The world loved Federer. Let Stan have a cult.
During these years when Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have won 57 majors, only a few others have garnered their own. Wawrinka and Andy Murray each have won three Grand Slam singles titles. Then there are the one-offs—Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, and Juan Martin del Potro. The 32-year-old Cilic lost here in the first round. Thiem is only 27, so will have many more chances. But Murray, now 33, and del Potro, 32, have each been significantly hobbled, the former at one point even retired, the latter injured at a rate so frequent it’s hard now to imagine him returning as a factor. Neither came to Melbourne.
But here is Wawrinka, at 35, still lethal—at least in bursts. In the fifth set, he fired a 133-m.p.h. serve. At 2-3, love-30 in that final set, a sizzling backhand down-the-line winner, followed by an ace. And when he took a 6-1 lead in the decisive tie-breaker, Wawrinka looked on course to reach the third round.
It didn’t happen this time. It might not happen another time. Wawrinka last won a tournament nearly four years ago. Should he earn another, that will only be a bonus.
On that evening in 2014 in Melbourne, Wawrinka spoke from a place usually occupied by those fast asleep.
“I still think that I'm dreaming,” he said after his win in the finals. “It's strange feeling, you know. I saw so many final. I always try to watch the final of Grand Slam because that's where the best player are playing. Before today for me wasn't a dream. I never expect to play a final. I never expect to win a Grand Slam. And right now I just did it.”
Tennis is filled with players who left possibilities on the table; even winners of multiple majors such as Ilie Nastase and Marat Safin. Then there is the agony of a del Potro, his hopes so often derailed.
None of this will be the case for Wawrinka. Five years after he retires, he’ll enter another hotel lobby—the one inside the Hotel Viking. That’s the official hotel for International Tennis Hall of Fame inductees, each July in Newport a grand gathering of legends. Wawrinka by then will have joined the pantheon. And this time, the toast will be made by the entire world.