On Friday, Stan Wawrinka continued his annual tradition of making a surprise run to a Grand Slam final, which means it’s time for another referendum on his place in the greater tennis landscape.
Fans get the reputation as reactionary, but often the “What have you done for me lately?” culture of sports is propagated by the professionals, as it was mere minutes after Wawrinka’s 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Kei Nishikori. ESPN’s Jason Goodall posited that right now, Stan the Man is more of a Big Four member than Rafael Nadal due to his chances of winning a major.
Setting aside that Roger Federer would seem to be the one on the bubble (and that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of disrespect for a 35 year old rehabbing injuries), the simple fact is there is no bubble, no election process. The Big Four are those four players, full stop, the name for this era as opposed to a rotating group to be elected and replaced over time.
While Stan Wawrinka will never be part of the Big Four (and has graciously admitted as much, repeatedly), what he has done, however, is put himself in the unique position of figuring out how to weather and coexist with the Big Four.
This uniqueness was proven out in the other semifinal, as Gael Monfils dragged Novak Djokovic into the most bizarre match of the season, going to such a weird set of strategies that, combined with his pre-2016 reputation, elicited complaints of unprofessionalism and low effort.
Though his early effort was rather listless, Monfils bagged his original gameplan and tried to muck up Djokovic’s rhythm, and with it, the match. It worked with moderate success (Monfils won the third set before Djokovic reeled him in the fourth) but the damage was already done, with ESPN adding details of the “Best Effort” rule to its ticker as John McEnroe angrily cast judgment without knowing the full story:
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) September 9, 2016
La Monf’s tactic switch was a smart one, as nothing is more frustrating than watching a player continue to go down the same road to defeat he/she has marched down a dozen times before. A largely unmentioned wrinkle in the talk of La Monf’s effort and tactics though is that he lacks the the two main acquirable attributes requisite to competing with the elite of this era: fitness and belief. Even if his grab-bag of serve-and-volley, playing possum and volatile range of pace had completely given him the upper hand, not a soul would have wagered on him to maintain it deep into a fifth set.
Kei Nishikori, despite his frame and continuous battle with injuries, has worked hard to attain that level of fitness. He also had a potentially career-altering win over Andy Murray in the quarterfinals that appeared to be the gateway for him accepting his spot at the top of the game.
Coming into the Wawrinka/Nishikori semifinal, the match was essentially a coin flip, yet many picked the Swiss star even in the face of their respective 2016 forms. Although it’s come with just one title, Nishikori has reached two Masters finals, the medal rounds in Rio, and been the most consistent player on tour other than Djokovic or Murray.
Wawrinka? He hadn’t beaten a top 10 player all year and didn’t beat a single seed en route to the semis, with his win over a weary Juan Martin del Potro in the quarters serving as his best of the season*. That Wawrinka was the slight favorite spoke to the trust that each has earned on the sport’s greatest stages.
*A confirmation that Wawrinka is not Big Four: imagine one of them going a full healthy season with those results and people not noticing. Many called for Federer to retire after his first rough season in 2013, and are currently convinced of Nadal’s demise despite his Monte Carlo title matching Wawrinka’s career Masters total. Wawrinka went nine months without an elite win and commentators were surprised after having to be informed of it. I digress.
Up a set and a break on Wawrinka, Nishikori appeared to have further cashed in on the opportunity Murray’s implosion afford him, finally playing with the aggression and freedom of a player comfortable with expectations in a legacy match…but then he blinked.
Nishikori, just as Murray did for him, left the door open with something close to the finish line in sight. Over much of the final two and a half sets, Nishikori was weighed down by the combination of Wawrinka’s heavy groundstrokes in the debilitating humidity.
When the failures of the “Lost Boys” generation – still without a Grand Slam or even a Masters title – are brought up, often the first rebuttal is that anyone would struggle to emerge from the shadow of four all-timers, and arguably the three most accomplished men to pick up a racquet. The same is true for the wave of players hitting their 30s now: Monfils, Jo Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, etc.
Wawrinka is proof that it’s possible, and he had the added obstacle of being from the same country as Federer. He can barely get through an interview without the subject turning at some point to his countryman, even in Federer’s current absence, yet “the Stanimal” is the one player of this era who has figured out how to bruise his way into the conversation and the record books, with his tree trunk legs built for five sets and a mindset that he can beat the best.
For every other week of the year, Stan Wawrinka is eminently beatable, but for eight weeks a year, he turns into a player no one wants to see in their path to the second Sunday. A player with just 14 career titles about to lift his third different major trophy? Stan Wawrinka is an anomaly, which would make him a fitting champion of the most anomalous Grand Slam of this era.