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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.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags: ,
  1. patzin
    January 27th, 2014 at 06:20 | #1

    Ah, you do have a way with words. Lovely.

  2. Katka
    January 27th, 2014 at 09:09 | #3

    Great write-up, as always. LOL at Thomas Oh’s speech, I was too so suprised that he didn’t take longer.
    Now, I’m very curious about Stan´s season. Btw, I think ’Stanimal’ comes from Roger, at least I saw it first in one of his tweets.

    • January 27th, 2014 at 22:00 | #4

      Interesting. I wonder if Federer really did come up with that? I have very high hopes for Stan’s season. I see a Masters final in his future, and expect he’ll accrue enough points to offset the loss of points at the US Open, where he won’t defend his semifinal. Now there’s some long-term predicting.

  3. Geethika
    January 27th, 2014 at 10:00 | #5

    Excellent article. I have been reading your blog for the last two years and your dry wit combined with your love for the game makes it a wonderful experience. Somehow, reading your articles makes me feel that that tennis will always have good to offer even as the generation I grew up watching retires. The lack of doom and gloom and GOATing is much welcome and your excellent sense of humour has made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions over the years. For allowing me to expand my vocabulary in such an enjoyable manner and for your insight, I wanted to leave this comment as a token of my appreciation. You have one very satisfied reader. Thank you.

    • January 27th, 2014 at 22:04 | #6

      Thank you so much for commenting, and for reading all this time. It is greatly appreciated.

      And thank you for pointing out the lack of doom and gloom. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I suppose an irreverent tone can be recession-proof, so to speak, since there are always new players to poke fun at. When it comes down to it, I like tennis too much to freight it down with earnestness.

  4. Shirley Hartt
    January 27th, 2014 at 12:56 | #7

    As always, an excellent piece, balanced and fun to read. There has been so much nonsense written about this match that I’d decided not to read any more about it, except for your blog.
    Watched the match twice, once in the middle of the night, with occasional dozing and then, when totally awake, in a replay. Your post was a great way to experience the match a third time.

    • January 27th, 2014 at 22:08 | #8

      I have to admit I’ve largely given up reading most tennis writing, at least as a source of information or analysis. I still read some for comedy. My file on laughably bad tennis writing is now bulging. Matt Cronin has seen to that.

  5. Q
    January 27th, 2014 at 13:39 | #9

    Your comment on Wawrinka’s forehand is so spot on. It’s usually when that wing is working well that Stan can really bring up a good game. It’s ultimately the players who execute, but Magnus Norman, wow, quite the coach.

    • January 27th, 2014 at 22:13 | #10

      We were courtside for the Wawrinka Berdych semifinal, and it was so apparent that night just how potent Stan’s forehand is (and in general hit noticeably harder than his backhand). For all those commentators who wonder aloud why he’d ever run around his backhand, the answer was quite plain.

      And Norman: I’m so happy about that, since I really liked him as a player (the Rome 2000 final was a masterpiece, especially since Kuerten was my favourite player at the time). I also loved what he did with Soderling – that was truly a miracle.

  6. Vijay
    January 27th, 2014 at 16:26 | #11

    Wow…Today is my first time reading you articles. Where were you all this time Jesse? I’ve been poring over nonsensical articles from popular websites, but they are either too emotional without an understanding and appreciation of technique, styles and tactics in tennis, or way too personal with author thinking his opinions and biases are somehow more valid than the game itself…
    Once again, Wow!! I could try to sit here desbribing your writing style, but it’s useless. All I can say is thanks for writing.

    • January 27th, 2014 at 22:17 | #12

      Well, thank you very much. Much appreciated. If you liked this piece (which was one of the longer ones), hopefully you’ll enjoy some others from the last three years.

  7. eldanger25
    January 27th, 2014 at 23:11 | #13

    Just discovered your site and writing – very refreshing and well-written stuff, a truly welcome respite from the unceasing tribalism of most tennis commentary/blogs. Will stop by regularly – thanks.

  8. Bebe
    January 28th, 2014 at 05:30 | #15

    I hadn’t really thought of the benefit playing fewer games the first week might have had on Wawrinka. But really, he only had to play 5 1/2 matches for the championship. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it….he absolutely deserves it. Luck is a huge part of sports….sometimes the “tennis gods” are just on someone’s side. Rafa’s has had his share of luck (though, not on Sunday) and most certainly so has Roger. I wonder…will this motivate the underdogs for the rest of the season?

    • January 28th, 2014 at 21:55 | #16

      I don’t know that the underdogs ever lacked motivation. I do have a feeling Ferrer’s time at the top is coming to an end, which in the short term will leave his draw sections more open than usual, and will leave a lot of extra points floating around. Federer’s bad 2013 freed up a lot of points, too, and I suspect he’ll reclaim some of them. But that’ll still leave opportunity for Delpo, Berdych, Tsonga etc. My dream of a top eight finish for Haas is fading. I expect we’ll see a big reshuffle in the 10-20 bracket by the year’s end.

  9. Jesna
    January 28th, 2014 at 08:01 | #17

    Thank you for this, lovely writing, as always. The match has proven to be very revealing not only where the tennis is concerned, but also when it comes to tennis fans. I will only say that many have not been left speechless – quite on contrary. Nonsense and bitterness (launched at both players) have been having quite a party. Hopefully, they will exhaust themselves soon.

    Oh, and I love the gravity well theory. I can see scientists working hand to hand with mages (those responsible for pre-tournament predictions and jinxing/antijinxing rituals) to explain every facet of the game for us. They should have their own low-budget TV show by now.

    • January 28th, 2014 at 22:14 | #18

      Tennis fandom right now is in such a strange and unique place, isn’t it? The long stability of the current era has ensured that fan opinion has had time to ossify, while the internet has developed such that finding a community of like-minds is not only easy, but much easier than encountering opposing views. Just about every online community becomes an echo chamber for hearing our own views repeated back at us. That’s not about to change, but I do wonder what’ll happen when (men’s) tennis goes back to being less predictable.

  10. Soumen
    January 28th, 2014 at 13:42 | #19

    Hi Jesse,
    Liked your articles very much. Extremely enjoyable to read.
    -Soumen.

  11. Eva
    January 28th, 2014 at 15:01 | #21

    I’m kind of speechless savouring your words and wit! Thank you so much, once more.

    Now, don’t let the calendar fool you into believing the Davis Cup is the next gravity-well deserving to attract your attention… Not when there is an Annual 2013 eagerly awaited on at least 3 continents to bundle together, right?!

    • January 28th, 2014 at 21:46 | #22

      Yes, that Annual. Hmmm. The truth is, there’s something like an Annual coming, but rather better.

  12. Deb
    January 28th, 2014 at 18:20 | #23

    @Jesse Pentecost
    Enjoyed your article.

    I wanted to remind you that Stan did make a Masters final last year–in Madrid, where he was beaten by someone named Nadal.

    • January 28th, 2014 at 21:44 | #24

      Oops, I actually meant Masters title! I do remember Madrid very well. There was also a final at Rome in 2008, from memory.

      And thank you.

  13. Felix
    January 28th, 2014 at 20:26 | #25

    I’m really interested in Stan’s season as well – he will get some nice draws from now on and he can beat everyone except maybe Nadal, so a second slam (or a Masters for that matter) seems far from impossible.

    P.S. great piece as always.

    • January 28th, 2014 at 22:19 | #26

      I’d love to see Stan pick up a Masters, and making a decent run at RG. I really hope he doesn’t fall in a heap after this, but somehow I doubt he will. It’s been such a smooth gradual build-up to this point. I also hope he doesn’t do something rash, like drop Magnus Norman.

  14. Jesna
    January 29th, 2014 at 10:06 | #27

    @Jesse Pentecost
    Inability or flat refusal to accepts changes or developments is only a part of the problem. For me the most striking thing is that very rarely are fans able to have a reasonable discussion when opposing opinions clash, because they tend to take things personally. Instead of holding a conversation that leads to modifying/changing/reaching some kind of conclusion, they end up being involved in a tug of war of egos to see who’s stronger in their convictions.
    Nothing is set in stone. If the sport itself is evolving, surely our understanding/perception or even allegiances should follow?

    • January 30th, 2014 at 08:52 | #28

      I guess my musing was more wondering about why it is so different now than it used to be. Were fans previously better equipped to have a reasonable discussion, and if so, what has changed?

  15. Shirley Hartt
    January 29th, 2014 at 15:20 | #29

    @Jesna

    One of the great things about this blog, along with Jesse’s terrific writing, is the comments section from thoughtful, respectful commentators. Wish more people contributed, but more seem to be finding their way here.

    It’s a pleasant oasis from other sites. I continue to follow the comments on one of them because occasionally there is interesting information or a link to a good article. But so many of the comments are simply attacks on certain players or even on other commentators. There is a real need for sites where there is informed discussion and respect even when people disagree.

    Jesse, we are looking forward to “something like an Annual coming, but rather better.”

    • January 30th, 2014 at 08:54 | #30

      If only I wasn’t so tardy with my own comments. Sorry about that.

      Hopefully the something better will be worth the wait. I now have to be careful not to oversell it.

  16. Eva
    January 29th, 2014 at 15:48 | #31

    @Jesse, @Shirley Hartt, I so hope “rather better” doesn’t mean “rather shorter” :-)

  17. Simmo
    January 30th, 2014 at 00:38 | #32

    Thanks for all the articles Jesse. I really enjoyed them as always, and you managed to evoke for me the spirit of my favourite (and hometown) sporting event far better than the ESPN coverage I’ve been watching.

    What do you make of Stan’s comment post-match that he couldn’t play his normal game cause he felt sorry for Nadal, as they are good friends? (I’m going by word of mouth here. Can’t find the footage.) Do you think that can account for it? To me it’s plausible, but (to play devil’s advocate–and for the record, I like Stan) it seems more likely he suffered the same brain freeze and feet-fettering so many players suffer when playing an injured opponent (in short, an injured opponent encourages excess safety, which elicits physical tightness. In particular I recall an injured Simon drop-shotting his way to victory against an apparently lobotomized Ljubicic in Bercy). Is it possible to let sympathy get in the way of victory when your opponent starts breaking your serve with ease?!
    But like I said I can’t watch the interview, so I’m really just curious about the whole thing! What psychological explanation would you suggest for his sudden lull?

    • January 30th, 2014 at 09:24 | #33

      I doubt whether it really was sympathy, personally, though I could of course be wrong. To me it looked like a classic case of playing like he had nothing to lose at the start, and playing like had everything to lose when it became clear that victory was pretty much laid out for him. So, much as I like Stan, too, it was just the usual brain freeze and feet-fettering, as you say.

      It was probably also made difficult by how different Nadal’s shots became. His serve became a powder puff, but his groundstrokes became not only aggressive, but quite unpredictable.

      Even allowing for the fact that this sport is far more tactically simple when you’re watching than when you’re playing, it was still a disturbing sight. I was a bit appalled, to be frank. If an elite athlete under pressure forgot basic physical skills, such as how to serve, he wouldn’t get a free pass for serving double faults for an hour. Yet Stan basically forgot how to construct rallies or return for quite a long time in that final, at a fundamental level. Granted it was an extreme situation, but still. I imagine he’ll handle it better next time, though.

  18. Shirley Hartt
    January 30th, 2014 at 15:55 | #34

    @Jesse Pentecost

    Jesse, Stan’s comments in his interview posted on the AO site support your view that he played like he had everything to lose when victory was likely. He forgot the excellent advice Magnus Norman had given him: “it was important not to think about the result but think about the way you want to play, the way you want to win every point.”

    Wawrinka said after Nadal’s injury it was not easy. “I start to get really nervous because I start to realize that I could win a Grand slam.” Asked about a very poor game in the 4th set, he said: “The problem is I didn’t play well because I was waiting for him to miss….”
    As you say, one expects he will handle the situation better in the future.

  19. Jesna
    January 30th, 2014 at 23:15 | #35

    @Jesse Pentecost
    What period of time are you thinking about here? I feel that expressing oneself (even only to vent frustrations or anger) has become more and more important than communicating – there are so many platforms we can use to make contact and yet curiosity runs out quickly. We should be better at having conversations, as you put it – we are taught how to do it in schools, at a workplace, we also have plenty more opportunities to practice it with people from very different cultural backgrounds. Somehow it’s not working that well. People have become skilled in presenting arguments, supporting them with facts, examples and what not but the point of any good discussion – understanding, discovery, creation of new ideas – is often missing. Often, not always, fortunately.

  20. Jesna
    January 30th, 2014 at 23:23 | #36

    @Shirley Hartt
    I agree with you, of course. Jesse’s site is one of the two I’ve felt perfectly safe to (infrequently) comment on.

  21. Eva
    February 17th, 2014 at 11:24 | #37

    @Jesse
    This is just hoping you are OK and all is well with you and around you… While your uniquely talented tennis writing is being missed those days, it is your well-being, more than anything else, that is essential for the universal harmony!

    May joy fill every cell of your being and may you know you are deeply appreciated, even when you do not write…

    • February 23rd, 2014 at 11:25 | #38

      Never fear, Eva. I’m alive and well. And thank you. Universal harmony should remain untroubled.

      I plan to have some tennis stuff up quite soon.

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