First, he denied Rafa Nadal (who was injured, but still) of being the first man in the Open Era to win each Grand Slam twice.
Months later, he prevented Roger Federer from finally winning in Monte Carlo, one of only three significant titles Federer has never won.
Now he has stonewalled the third member of the Holy Triad, Novak Djokovic, from finally claiming victory at Roland Garros and completing the career Grand Slam.
What an incredible 18 months for Stan Wawrinka, a player who seemed destined to live out his career in relative anonymity, staying in the top 10-15 for a few years, building a significant bank account and lifting some minor trophies.
Instead, he has become what the tennis world lost in Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling when their bodies gave out, del Potro’s to injury and Soderling’s to illness. His power game, with a thumping forehand, a booming serve and the best one-handed backhand in the game, has provided a much-needed contrast to the Big Four, three of whom (Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray) have anchored their success around the defense that the slower courts of this era reward.
In his third career French Open final, Djokovic was a massive favorite coming in. He had finally knocked off Nadal and then he outlasted Murray in a two-day, five-setter. In a crisply played first set, Wawrinka came out guns blazing, attacking the Serb with those heavy groundstrokes all over the court. He saved some dicey service games, but couldn’t dent the Djokovic serve and fell behind when a single loose game handed over the break. Wawrinka got a look at one break point with Djokovic serving out the set at 5-4, but the world No. 1 saved it with a clutch serve and later closed out the set.
As seen in many best-of-five matches, especially those of Djokovic, the second set featured a lull. In order to win, it seemed Wawrinka needed to jump in front early, though that didn’t happen. Wawrinka even got a lift from Djokovic’s longtime nemesis, the wind, and started to make inroads on the return, except he couldn’t convert a break point. He finally cashed in at 5-4, firing a full barrage of shots at Djokovic, who finally cracked, surrendering the set and smashing his racket not once, but twice.
Throughout 2015, Djokovic has bounced back from those momentum swings to swiftly end his opponent’s hopes, but nerves had begun to crack the Serb’s game. The wind was bothering him and he kept hitting drop shots, a tactic that worked early and became drastically less effective as the match progressed. Wawrinka immediately broke and held it through the rest of the third, serving out the set at love.
A loose game to start the fourth gave Djokovic the lead he needed. Up 3-0, a quick set looked imminent, followed by a fifth few figured Wawrinka stood a chance in. Instead, Wawrinka got the break back and even threatened to break again until Djokovic made two fantastic saves on break point. Wawrinka teetered on the brink, as many players who fail to get the break suffer a letdown in their own service game. Down 0-40, Djokovic missed his chance though, a missed opportunity on a day full of them, losing five points in a row.
Sitting at 4-4, Wawrinka played a masterful game, breaking Djokovic, who had relied on a serve-and-volley based attack in that game, which Wawrinka ate up with brilliant passing shots. The match appeared over as Wawrinka hit an ace at 40-30…only for the chair umpire to confirm the serve went long. Djokovic won the next two points to set up break point and paving the road for possibly the most brutal defeat in tennis history, but Wawrinka stayed strong and didn’t fold, winning the final three points to clinch the fourth set and the title.
Wawrinka deserves all the credit in the world considering he played the match of his life on the biggest of stages, handing the eight-time Slam champion just his third loss of the season. He’s improbably halfway to the career Grand Slam himself now, and though he’s 30 years old, this is a whole new tennis landscape, especially with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open as the more unpredictable Slams recently than the Australian (ruled by Djokovic) or French (a decade of Nadal domination).
This is a full reset button for the men’s tour. While Serena Williams has a complete grasp on the women’s side, this one match reframes everything about the ATP. Djokovic once conquered it before, winning four out of five Slams in 2011 and into 2012, but he followed that with just one of the next seven, plagued by poor performances in big matches, dropping winnable matches in Paris to Nadal and New York to both Nadal and Murray.
After bringing former champ Boris Becker into his camp, those big-match struggles appeared to be gone after bouncing back in the fifth set of last year’s Wimbledon final against Federer. Now with hindsight, questions must be asked and observations must be made.
Djokovic has not fared well in Grand Slam finals outside of Australia (just 3-8) and he is now 8-8 overall. This is not only a huge blow to his chances at the career Slam (he’ll be 29 next time around, and as Federer and Nadal are showing, nothing is guaranteed after age 28 or so), but also to his total Slam count. This erases just about any shot he had at catching either of them, and highlights Djokovic’s inability to win multiple Slams in a season after that magical 2011 campaign.
Men’s tennis has a funny way for sharply reversing course. Federer was set to dominate the sport unrivaled until Nadal crashed the party. Then in 2009, Federer appeared done when Nadal’s epic victory in the 2009 Australian Open final left him in tears at the podium. Fed’s next four Slams? Winning his first French Open, reclaiming Wimbledon, runner-up at the U.S. Open, Australian Open champion.
Nadal was in the same position after Djokovic capped off a year of owning Nadal by outlasting him in the 2012 Australian final, the infamous six-hour marathon. The resilient Spaniard came back stronger and defeated Djokovic en route to each of his four Slams since then, not losing to him again at a major until this French Open.
There won’t be much downtime for the major players here: Wimbledon starts in three weeks. The grass represents the best chance at another major for Federer and Murray, while Nadal has never had this much time to prepare for a run there. It’s the first time in a year and a half that Djokovic will be defending a title at a Slam. His response to both that and his agonizing defeat here are the biggest factor in years for the course of men’s tennis.