Has Wawrinka Failed To Back Up His Grand Slam Win?

With Stanislas Wawrinka bowing out of the US Open, losing in the quarter-finals to surprise finalist Kei Nishikori, our attention turns to whether he has progressed since his Grand Slam win earlier this year. I was struck by a Sky Sports pundit, who had commented even before the quarter-final encounter, that Wawrinka had not built on his Australian Open win.

Wawrinka’s 2014 season has been the best of his career; he’s won three titles which include a maiden Grand Slam title and Masters 1000 title, reached his highest ever ranking at number three and has made over four million dollars in prize money. Having never won more than one title in a season, he has tripled that. Moreover, he made two further quarter-final appearances at slams, at Wimbledon, when he pushed Federer heroically, and at the US Open.

However, that is not to say that he hasn’t struggled. He hasn’t won a tournament since his title at Monte Carlo, lost in the first round at Roland Garros and has routinely failed to make beyond the fourth round at Masters 1000 events (problematic for someone ranked in the top five). Furthermore, the nature of some of his losses has caused questions about his hunger for competition and mental stability. In Cincinnati, he lost to Julien Benneteau in extremely poor fashion, having dominated the first set with aggressive tennis.  However, he proceeded to lose in super-quick time, refusing to change his game-plan and spraying errors all over the court, dropping the next two sets 6-1 6-2.

It’s important to remember that before 2014, Wawrinka was always known as a talented player who had failed to put it together mentally. He would lose to Federer in straight sets at slams, betraying the brilliant tennis he had played to get to that point. The addition of Magnus Norman to his team has changed this, Norman guided Robin Soderling to two Roland Garros finals, and his input has directly led to Wawrinka’s ascendence. This ascendence began last year with a heart-breaking loss to Novak Djokovic in five sets at the Australian Open, followed by another five-set thriller at the US Open, the same year.

So why is Wawrinka being accused of not backing up his Grand Slam victory?

Tennis pundits and fans alike have become accustomed to a certain level of dominance from players: the Federer peak years in which it was assumed Federer would win every event he entered; Djokovic’s 2011 season, widely regarded as the best ever, in which he won three Grand Slam titles and 41 matches in a row; Nadal’s comeback from injury last year in which he won his eighth Roland Garros and won Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open consecutively.

These Grand Slam champions have skewed our perception of what is normal performance for a tennis player. Whilst magnificent and exciting to watch, their total dominance of our sport has been atypical. In this way, as we judge Wawrinka in comparison to these players, we expect him to ‘step-up to the plate’ and win a lot of tournaments.

In reality, this is an unrealistic expectation. As noted previously, Wawrinka has always struggled mentally, so to expect his Grand Slam to unlock the key to Nadal-levels of mental strength is perhaps one too far. This year, he has really changed the way he approaches the game and the way he articulates his own expectations.

If we take a look at his press conferences during the US Open, reporters continually probe him about Australia and the effect it has on him. In a press conference after his win over Tommy Robredo, he was asked:

“What effect on you does Australia still have?”

SW: “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know for sure. Give me always confidence when I’m on court, especially in five-sets (sic) match, especially in Grand Slam… But then when I’m playing today I’m not thinking about Australia. (US Open Press Conference, 2014)

It’s revealing that Wawrinka isn’t thinking about Australia on court, which is obvious because he’s concentrating on playing the match, but you would’ve thought that in tight spots, he would think, “I’m a Grand Slam champion, I will win this match.” On the flip-side, Wawrinka might feel pressure on court, and his opponent would certainly be gunning to take out the Australian Open champion. In many ways, he has a target on his back.

After losing to Nishikori he commented:

“You know, it’s a really long way to win a Grand Slam, even if you’re in quarter, even if you’re in semifinal. It’s better not to think too much about that, especially when you see who is still playing in the draw.” (US Open Press Conference, 2014)

I think we’re sometimes guilty, I know I am, of overlooking the difficulty of winning a slam. Federer has won seventeen slams, Nadal fourteen and Djokovic seven. When players win slams with surprising ease and in great quantities, it’s easy to expect people to win them and not think about how difficult it is to win seven matches against the best players in the world. This quote reaffirms the great difficulty of winning a slam, especially for a player like Wawrinka.

We need to change the narrative, the expectation that a player who wins a slam will subsequently dominate the sport. With Marin Cilic’s US Open victory, it may be time to disregard this notion. The future of the ATP may be with all of the top 10 vying for each Grand Slam title and with a realistic shot at winning it.

I believe that Wawrinka has built on his slam win this year. He’s been in the second week of slams, challenging the top players and lost to the eventual finalist at both Wimbledon and the US Open. He’s playing brilliant tennis, hitting the ball with huge power and his one-handed backhand is a joy to behold. It was inevitable that he would lose early in some tournaments; he has been consistent in this throughout his whole career. Whilst his loss at the US, where he had a real chance of victory, was disappointing, Wawrinka himself, fans and pundits would do well to take a look at the quote on his arm:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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