One of us — Stan Wawrinka captures an improbable U.S. Open

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

One of us.

One of us.

One of us.

Stan Wawrinka was presented with a check for $3.5 million after winning the United States Open men’s singles championship for the first time on Sunday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He’s living a life very few people can relate to. On so many levels, the Swiss is not “one of us.”

Yet, that’s the thing about comparisons — in tennis, and in everything else under the sun: They don’t have to fit in every imaginable fashion to be valuable or illuminating. Comparisons only need to strike a chord in a particular way to leave a meaningful imprint.

In Wawrinka’s case, the notion of being “one of us” — carrying the banner for the common person and the common tennis player — is connected to a very specific vein of human experience.


In this majestic and magnificent Golden Era of men’s professional tennis, we — as journalists, pundits and fans — have had the privilege to witness the ascendancies of three very uncommon tennis players.

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have walked among the clouds — not the crowds. They have achieved at such stratospherically high levels that they have all been called the greatest male tennis player who has ever lived.

You don’t have to agree with the idea that those three are the best who have ever played; what’s relevant here is that all three members of that trio have made convincing cases, even if you prefer Rod Laver or Bjorn Borg or perhaps Pancho Gonzalez or Bill Tilden. What Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have each achieved in their careers represents a height and standard of accomplishment which transcend our sense of what was humanly possible in June of 2003. (That’s the month before Federer gave that trio its first major title, and essentially began a remarkable period in the sport’s history.)

When I, as a tennis observer, watch Djokovic, Nadal or Federer, I frequently wonder how they manage to do all that they do. I can’t adequately admire their relentless consistency because it’s too soaring and overwhelming. My words are manifestly feeble as vehicles for conveying a complete appreciation of their feats. That’s how transcendent the Big Three have been, and it’s how they’ll always be remembered.

What about Andy Murray, whose gong-created meltdown prevented him from meeting Wawrinka in the semifinals of this U.S. Open and perhaps playing Djokovic in Sunday’s final? Very briefly — but clearly — 2016 has shown that Murray remains a cut below the Big Three, but far more consistent than anyone else on the ATP Tour. Murray has, by a very large margin, been the second-best and second-most consistent ATP player in 2016. Over 12-month cycles, Murray is a very trustworthy player. Closing a door at the majors is where he lags behind his peers.

This brings us back to Wawrinka, who overpowered and outlasted Djokovic in another four-set major final on Sunday in New York.

Whereas the Big Three represent tennis royalty and Andy Murray will surely be given the honor of knighthood at some point in his life (perhaps when his playing career concludes), Stan Wawrinka really is “one of us.”

For the pure hacker wishes to attain a basic level of competence; for the driven but anxious 3.5 player who wants to become a 5.5; or for someone such as Tomas Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, desperately trying to win a major before the body says “no mas,” Stan Wawrinka is the model, the example, the inspiration.

Wawrinka is — for the everyman or everywoman tennis player — the icon of this Golden Era of men’s tennis.

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

If you go to Carl Bialik’s Twitter page, you’ll find all sorts of tweets and stats which capture the remarkable nature of Wawrinka’s U.S. Open title, in all sorts of historical contexts.

This is just a sample, but one which might do the best job of conveying the confounding quality of what we witnessed Sunday evening:

The trajectory of Wawrinka’s career — and of his 2016 season in particular — make him the role model for the common tennis player.

Whereas the Big Three — once each of them “figured it out” — dismantled the ATP Tour (Federer in 2004, Nadal in 2008 and 2010, Djokovic in 2011 and 2015, continuing through the first half of this year), and whereas Murray has steadily existed on a semifinal-final plane for much of the past half-decade, Stan Wawrinka has occupied a separate piece of terrain.

Wawrinka won the 2014 Australian Open. He learned so much from that event that he lost in the first round of Roland Garros.

After Wawrinka won Roland Garros in 2015, he was so full of confidence and wisdom that he…

… lost to Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon.

Yes, Wawrinka produced a hugely successful 2014 — one which included a first Masters 1000 title and a Davis Cup championship with Switzerland — but he didn’t follow that prolific year with the steady performances one might expect from a player who, in the vein of Angelique Kerber this year, finally realized what it took to be a great tennis player.

Remember the prelude to the 2015 Roland Garros tournament? Wawrinka bombed out of the ATP 250 Geneva Open before the semifinals, losing to Federico Delbonis. Entering Paris that spring, Wawrinka had a puncher’s chance, but he certainly didn’t inspire supreme confidence in his abilities.

The lead-in to this 2016 U.S. Open was similar.

Wawrinka folded after losing a first-set tiebreaker to Kei Nishikori in the Toronto semifinals. Tournaments other than the majors often inspire Stan to be … well … less than fully inspired.

Wawrinka then struggled against Jared Donaldson in Cincinnati, a precursor to a third-round exit at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov.

No one in his or her right mind would have expected Wawrinka to get past Murray in this tournament, and when another Brit — Dan Evans — gained a match point on the Swiss in a third-round match on Sept. 3, every suspicion about the state of Wawrinka’s game was about to be affirmed.

Yet, that’s one of the great things about tennis: Merely surviving the given day, the given opponent, and the given set of circumstances creates new hope and new opportunities. No player exhibits the heart or the mindset of the struggling but always aspirational tennis player than Stan The Everyman.

He might not get out of bed the right way on most days — ONE OF US!

He might not get equally excited about every workday at the office — ONE OF US!

He might find his line of work a chore at times — ONE OF US!

He consistently struggles and fails. He has had rocky relationships and walked over the coals of deep personal uncertainty — ONE OF US!

Whereas the Big Three are established members of the ruling class and Murray — in relation to said Big Three — is a member of the upper-middle class in a cozy suburb, Wawrinka is the commoner.

His bags and supplies at courtside are thrown around in a big mess — ONE OF US!

He looks scraggly and not polished — ONE OF US (at least most of the time)!

Yet, through all those periods of struggle and failure — all those days when he doesn’t have the full appetite for battle, all those days when his shots aren’t working — Wawrinka finds ways to not only return to the center of the action in a major final; once there, he has managed to defeat two legends, Nadal (2014) and Djokovic (2015 and Sunday evening), without losing more than a set in each instance.

Stan Wawrinka’s tennis life is the life most ordinary people can identify with: Most days are either boring or sluggish or less than fully promising. However, we all search for and hope for a handful of moments, a few mountaintop experiences that make our human journeys worth it.

When Stan Wawrinka reaches those moments, he relishes them the way we would — ONE OF US!

He hungers to maximize those moments when they come along — ONE OF US!

Wanting to drink up the atmosphere of the big stage when given the chance to experience it — ONE OF US!

Wawrinka — 3-0 on the big stage of major-tournament finals — has exponentially reinforced that rarest characteristic in sports: To come out of nowhere in repeated instances to win championships.

In team sports, a team can come out of nowhere (think Leicester City) only once. The next season and in subsequent seasons, every opponent has a scouting report and is waiting to attack.

In individual sports, the solo athlete often ceases to come out of nowhere if only because he (or she) develops a consistency which enables said athlete to become a target on the tour.

Wawrinka has improbably avoided that (normal) progression, which is why his 2015 Roland Garros title and this 2016 U.S Open title were so unexpected.

Marin Cilic (2014 U.S. Open) and Marion Bartoli (2013 Wimbledon) are one-hit wonders, though Cilic has a chance to shed that tag before his career is done. Stan Wawrinka — never to be confused with the Big Three and nowhere near as consistent on a year-round basis as Murray — has managed to be that rarest of tennis players.

He has won three different major titles — at three different venues, carrying him within one Wimbledon of a career Grand Slam — when virtually no one expected him to do so. He can look so unmistakably pedestrian, and yet, when staring down the best players of his time in a cauldron where mental frailty is to be expected, he is 3-0, unbeaten in major finals.

Stan Wawrinka often looks bad on a tennis court. He often stumbles, often fails to live up to a top-four world ranking (since the time he attained it), often makes it easy to dismiss him.

He is a three-time major champion and the owner of a $3.5 million prize at the U.S. Open. He has secured a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, no questions asked.

Yet, Stan The Everyman is verily and fully…


One of us — Stan Wawrinka captures an improbable U.S. Open

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