Speechless Saying That

Australian Open, Final

(8) Wawrinka d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/2 3/6 6/3

Stanislas Wawrinka has won the 2014 Australian Open, thereby proving wrong those who’d maintained he couldn’t, a group in which he himself was often prominent. At a single broad stroke, which began in his coiled shoulders and uncurled through that mighty backhand, he has become a Major champion, soared into the top three, and stopped Rafael Nadal from becoming the first man in the Open Era to claim a career Grand Slam twice. Due in part to the circumstance and in part to the innate preposterousness of what he had achieved, Wawrinka’s initial reaction was one of muted disbelief, a response that he managed to sustain through the trophy ceremony, and the endless interviews he subsequently granted to all of the world’s main broadcasters. For all I know he is still wearing an expression of bemused incredulity. Scott Barbour/Getty Images AsiaPacHe wouldn’t be the only one. It was with unabashed wonder that Brad Gilbert on ESPN declared that Wawrinka actually was the Australian Open champion, adding that he was ‘still kinda speechless saying that.’

To say that Wawrinka was a little lucky is a little redundant. No one wins a Major without some luck, least of all those who aren’t lucky enough to be Roger Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, collectively known as the big four. Since the 2004 French Open, only three men besides those four have contrived to win a Major – a sequence of thirty-nine tournaments – and in no case was the eventual winner permitted to amble through a wide open draw. At the 2005 Australian Open Marat Safin defeated the first (Federer) and third (Hewitt) seeds. At the 2009 US Open, Juan Martin del Potro also beat the first (Federer) and third (Nadal) seeds. Wawrinka is the first man to see off the first (Nadal) and second (Djokovic) seeds to win a Major since Sergi Bruguera at the 1993 French Open.

Boris Becker insisted when probed that he would never concede any side of a draw is easier than the other, but then the words that tumble out of Becker’s mouth often bear no trace of a supervising intellect. Perhaps they should have probed him more thoroughly, or with a sharper implement. Wawrinka’s half of the draw was certainly friendlier than the other half, and he was unquestionably helped by a retirement in the first round (Golubev) and a walkover in the third (Pospisil), especially since it limited his exposure to the apocalyptic conditions of the first week. But that merely helped him survive the early rounds, and no draw is benign that brings one up against Djokovic, especially in Melbourne.

From the quarterfinal until the second set of the final, when events lurched into a strange place, Wawrinka was mostly majestic. As he did with Robin Soderling, Magnus Norman has performed wonders with Wawrinka, and in a relatively short time has ensconced himself among the coaching elite. Unfortunately, even Norman hadn’t anticipated the sharp dip the final would take – a slow turn through the S-bend – and thus couldn’t have known to prepare his charge accordingly. Perhaps he’d figured that the concept of hitting the ball away from an immobile opponent was too obvious to need saying. It turns out nothing is too obvious in a Slam final. It might have been worth a professional code violation to belatedly deliver this complicated message. Marching onto court and smacking Wawrinka upside the head probably would have risked a default, but Norman must have been sorely tempted. I know I was. I suspect even Nadal was by the end.

Nadal’s back injury inevitably obliges one to wonder what might have transpired had he remained fit, though I confess I don’t find such speculation worthwhile. There was one set in which both players looked fine, and Wawrinka dominated it, but this was his first Major final and there is little reason to think he could have sustained that level indefinitely. One suspects Nadal eventually would have pegged him back. In any case, Nadal’s injuries are a misted, shifting quagmire in which even well-provisioned expeditions are liable to be waylaid and careen over a precipice. Mountains spring from molehills, or at any rate, blisters become volcanoes. Writers who toil hard to maintain a veil of impartiality can fall to anxious weeping the moment Nadal stumbles. There was a moment when he might have twisted his ankle against Kei Nishikori. It soon turned out that he hadn’t, though not soon enough for some alleged professionals to demonstrate that there are in fact fifty-four stages of grief, and that they’re all boring. By the same token, those insisting that Nadal was not injured are certainly wrong, and in many cases have taken their insistence to contemptible lengths. They are also beyond convincing, being possessed by a special kind of mania. As I say, a quagmire, and not worth the trouble.

Others have insisted they noticed something awry with Nadal early in the first set, if not in the hit-up. Perhaps I’m obtuse, or I was busy staring awestruck at the fearless guy up the other end, but I confess I didn’t see anything wrong. I did remark to my companions that Nadal appeared to have fallen into the trap he used to with David Nalbandian, which was to pay a famous backhand too much respect. Wawrinka’s backhand is, without doubt, a superb shot, one by which I am often reduced to envy. But his forehand remains the more potent shot, and it’s from that wing that most of his groundstroke winners originate. The semifinal was an especially fine showcase for this. Tomas Berdych heard countless forehands hum past. I suppose it hardly mattered, Wawrinka was fearsome from both sides through the first set. It’s worth remembering that this was the first set he ever took from Nadal, though he nearly didn’t. He fell down 0-40 while serving for it, halfway through a sequence of six missed first serves. Nadal then failed to put another second serve return into play, and it’s easy enough to believe his later claim that his back was already bothering him. Something was wrong somewhere.

The matched changed completely in the second set, which Wawrinka opened in grand fashion by breaking to love. It wasn’t long after this that Nadal evinced clear signs of distress, leaning over and clutching his back, and at 1/2 availed himself of a long off-court medical timeout. Wawrinka, left in the dark on the bright court, took his frustration out on Carlos Ramos, and was only slightly mollified when tournament referee Wayne McKewan emerged with an explanation. There was some concern that the Swiss was thereby squandering valuable energy. Magnus Norman looked on serenely. Nadal re-emerged, encountering lusty boos from the Rod Laver Arena crowd, behaviour that what won’t go down as its finest. (Nadal later said he understood their frustration, though unlike Bernard Tomic he didn’t call a separate press conference to explain himself.) Nadal’s face looked exactly the way it had in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal, when an injury early in the first set combined with a ruthless David Ferrer to destroy his chance at the ‘Rafa Slam’. Wawrinka worked out his vestigial frustration with a brace of aces, while Nadal commenced lobbing serves over at about 140kmh. Before long Wawrinka had won his second set against Nadal. There was speculation that Nadal would default. I didn’t think he would, but believed that the match was essentially over, assuming Wawrinka would do the smart thing and make the Spaniard run.

This turned out to be a rather large assumption to make. Although physicists have yet to isolate the mechanism by which this process works, injured players will sometimes transform into a kind of localised gravity-well, drawing every ball inexorably towards them. The only reliable way for the opponent to avoid this effect is to launch their shots ten feet out. For the next set and a half Wawrinka tried both these approaches, with limited success. It recalled Albert Montanes’ flailing and dispiriting loss to a crippled Fabio Fognini at Roland Garros three years ago, and Mikhail Kukushkin’s near-implosion against Gael Monfils at the Australian Open. In both cases the latter player could barely move, and was reduced to windmilling his arms at any ball that strayed within reach, generally to devastating effect. In much the same mood, Nadal hardly bothered running for any ball more than a few metres away, but swung lustily at any that landed nearby, which, somehow, was nearly all of them. Thus we discovered yet again that the world number one in a reckless mood is perfectly capable of striking fabulous winners off both sides from neutral balls, leaving some of us to wish that he’d play like this more often. Nadal still missed plenty, however, enabling Wawrinka to achieve multiple breakpoints in every other game, whereupon Wawrinka’s return would explore the bottom of the net or the unscuffed part of the court beyond the Melbourne sign. Nadal’s pace and mobility began gradually to improve, and he won the third set. Wawrinka took to shouting at himself, but not in English. Magnus Norman looked on serenely.

A match that began electrifyingly for Wawrinka, and continued dismally for Nadal, now spiralled into absurdity for both. Nadal, by his own admission, was mainly continuing for the fans who’d paid a lot of money to be there, but he must have wondered if he wouldn’t be doing them a kindness to end it immediately. Then again, I imagine by this time he was harbouring a few desperate dreams of victory. Aside from his first serve, which Wawrinka could barely return anyway, the Spaniard was starting to play a great deal better. On the other hand, Wawrinka, aside from his serve, had lost all coherence, and his eyes grew clouded with dread. The 2004 French Open final was invoked – always a sure sign that the ropes binding reality together had begun to fray. Jim Courier in commentary pointed out, astutely, that Wawrinka could have lost the final in straight sets and still regarded the tournament as a triumph, but to lose it from this point would be a fiasco. Wawrinka was playing like someone aware of no other fact. He somehow broke, but followed up this accomplishment, monumental in the circumstances, with the worst service game of the modern era, and lost his serve to love. He broke again, more decisively. The crowd went crazy – demented might be a better word – having stared once too often into the abyss. Wawrinka served it out to love, the way exactly no one assumed he would. In deference to his wounded opponent, his celebration was diffident. Magnus Norman leapt to his feet, exultant, and threw his arms around Severin Luthi. Nadal had been granted an unlooked-for hour on court to come to terms with the near-certainty of defeat, but he still looked quite stricken, a look he retained throughout the trophy ceremony.

Thomas Oh, Kia Motor’s ineffable representative, was so moved by what he’d seen that he kept his speech down to a few minutes, instead of its usual hour. Both players spoke well, though their efforts hardly compared to Li Na’s masterpiece from the night before. Where before they’d booed him, the RLA crowd now hurled their adoration down on Nadal, who fought to quell his tears but lost. Pete Sampras was on hand to dole out the silverware. The official reason for this was because it is the twentieth anniversary of his first Australian Open title. No one failed to grasp the deeper significance, however, which was that, had Nadal won, the world number one would have equalled the American’s Major tally of fourteen. It brought to mind the 2009 final, in which Federer failed to win his expected fourteenth Major. We were in turn reminded that the French Open is only months away. I doubt whether anyone believes Nadal won’t surpass Sampras before long.

For now, however, the important number isn’t fourteen, but one. Stan Wawrinka, who at some point regressed down the evolutionary chain from being ‘Stan the Man’ to become the ‘Stanimal’, has won his first Major, and has earned his place among the sport’s elite. I, too, feel kind of speechless saying that.


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