In the top-heavy world of men’s tennis, it’s rare that anyone other than the traditional “Big Four” gets their day in the sun. Most of the glory is hogged by the brilliance of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer.
The rest of the tour often seems merely like a supporting cast.
But those guys, the ones you don’t hear about often, they’re putting in the hard work and fighting for the same prizes. And, every once in a while, one of the “others” gets a chance to shine.
For No. 9-seed Stanislas Wawrinka, known to many merely as “the Swiss tennis player that’s not Federer,” that time was Thursday, when he took out the defending champion Murray 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the U.S. Open quarterfinals on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
With a frame-worthy one-handed backhand, a powerful forehand, an aggressive game-plan and a frighteningly good serve — he didn’t face a break point all match, despite the fact that Murray is the best returners in the game — Wawrinka dictated and dominated the match.
With that signature win, he stepped out of the shadows and into the semifinals.
The 28-year-old Wawrinka, who wears sunscreen as war paint, started this year off ranked No. 15 and on a mission. He made the fourth round of the Australian Open, and there he played a match that is still considered one of the best of the year.
Facing defending champion Djokovic, who hadn’t lost a match at the Australian Open since 2010, Wawrinka played the best tennis of his life — in fact, for parts of the match, he played the best tennis of anyone’s life. It was out-of-body, go-for-broke, mind-boggingly bold tennis, and for five hours he went toe-for-toe with the world No. 1.
It took one of the most spectacular match points in the history of tennis for Djokovic to finally knock out Wawrinka, 1‑6, 7‑5, 6‑4, 6‑7, 12‑10.
It was a loss that would have destroyed most players of Wawrinka’s caliber, players who don’t get within points of taking out top guys at slams on a regular basis. But he refused to see the match as a negative.
“That was a really tough moment, but at the end, I was really positive with that match because all Australian Open my level was quite good and was better than ever,” he said. “That’s the most important for me.”
After the loss, Wawrinka finally decided to get a tattoo that he had been wanting for a while on the inside of his left forearm. It’s a Samuel Beckett quote that had stuck with him throughout the years: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
“It’s my vision of my job and my life in general,” he explained. “In tennis, as you know, if are not Roger or Rafa and Djokovic or Andy now, you don’t win so many tournaments and you always lose. But you need to take the positive of the loss and you need to go back to work and still playing.
“Because if when you lost that’s kill you, then it’s tough to play tennis. It’s that simple.”
Wawrinka is admittedly a shy guy, and for years enjoyed being in Federer’s shadow for that reason — it took a lot of the media spotlight off of him.
Recently, though, Wawrinka has been opening up more to his fans and the media, thanks to some modern-day help from everyone’s favorite social networking platform, Twitter.
He regularly tweets out comic strips from @Swissminipeople, cartoons which primarily make fun of him and Federer, and the complex dynamics in their relationship.
(For example, one of their most recent strips was of Federer getting Wawrinka’s tattoo on his arm after his U.S. Open loss to Tommy Robredo.)
But don’t let his sense of humor fool you—Wawrinka and Federer, who won the gold medal in doubles together at the 2008 Sydney Olympics, are great friends.
One of the many things that makes this U.S. Open run significant for Wawrinka is that it’s the first time that he’s gone farther in a Grand Slam than his legendary compatriot.
“It’s a different situation, for sure. I’m really happy with me for myself with the year, what I’m doing right now, but I will prefer to have [Federer] still playing in the tournament, you know,” Wawrinka told reporters after his fourth round win. “I watched his match yesterday and it was not that good. I was sad for him, because he’s a good friend and I like when he’s winning Grand Slam titles. I hope he will come back stronger.”
After his big upset of Murray on Thursday, Wawrinka said that he got a congratulatory text from Federer. However, he wouldn’t elaborate on the message.
“Private things,” he said. “You don’t want to know.”
This spring, Wawrinka teamed up with coach Magnus Norman, the coach that brought Nadal-slayer and former top-5 player Robin Soderling to prominence. Since that union, Wawrinka has defeated seven top 10 players, won his first title in two years, and gotten back to the top 10 for the first time in five years.
And now, he’s into his first Grand Slam semifinal.
“He’s a good coach,” Wawrinka told reporters. “Apparently, [a] really good coach.”
This year, Wawrinka has completely come into his own, both on the court and off. He has more confidence in everything — his forehand, his backhand, his tactics, and, most importantly, himself.
A few hours after he took out Murray, he made his way up to the ESPN commentary booth to talk with John McEnroe and Chris Fowler as they called the Djokovic vs. Mikhail Youzhny quarterfinal that would determine Wawrinka’s semifinal opponent. He stayed around for almost an entire set, analyzing the match, trading quips and talking about his journey this year.
When asked the requisite question about Federer, he smiled. “I miss him.”
Though he wishes Federer were still around Flushing to keep him company, Wawrinka seems to finally be enjoying the attention that comes with success.
This is his moment. He’s earned his place, fair and square. He belongs now. For at least this tournament, he’s one of the “haves” of men’s tennis.
Djokovic ended up taking out Youzhny in four sets, so on Saturday, Wawrinka will get a chance for an Australian Open re-match.
Time to try again.