He has three of the best nicknames in tennis – Stan the Man, Stanimal and The Bison. And he has the beefiest barrel chest this side of your local linebacker.
Stan Wawrinka is the best second fiddle in tennis history. The quiet man thrives in the recesses of Roger Federer‘s considerable shadow. His one-handed backhand is a wonder from the tennis gods. And he has the most provocative tattoo in tennis: Samuel Beckett‘s call for perseverance: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”
And Stan had failed notably this year when he lost early at Wimbledon and the Olympics. Still he was true to the spirit of his tattoo as he survived a match point against the Brit Dan Evans, the No. 64 player, in the third round and scored a gutsy, bruising, come-from-behind win over the No. 6 seed Kei Nishikori in the semis to set up a heavyweight championship bout against the best player in the world – Novak Djokovic.
The US Open’s marketing folks promised us “spectacular” here in New York – and spectacular is what we got: a new women’s champion, a snazzy new Grandstand and a dazzling new roof.
But the men’s final was old school – very old – a street brawl between two familiar figures. Battlers we’ve seen in combat on the game’s biggest stages; warriors with scars, and careers crowded with triumphs and aches.
And yes, the final night of the Open was a spectacular chess match, with two inspired athletes dashing corner to corner, probing and penetrating. A fierce Djokovic forehand, an astounding Wawrinka backhand, desperate sprints, little dinks, savvy scrambles, lucky let cords – the match captivated. There is a reason Novak is the top seed and Stan is No. 3.
Before the match, Wawrinka, 31, was more nervous than he had ever been in his career – he cried in the locker room. Often a lethargic starter, he came out tight and wildly shanked forehands, dumped a simple overhead into the net and promptly lost his first service game.
Djokovic, playing steady, was happy to let Stan donate a slew of errors as he sprinted to a tidy 5-2 first-set lead. But when the Swiss saved two set points, the Stanimal awoke. Match on. Chris Fowler said, “Stan reminds me of a big diesel truck. It takes some time to crank it up.”
Wawrinka won seven points in a row, broke back and eventually forced a tie-break. Whew! What an effort.
But then Stan stunk up the gym, losing the tiebreak 7-1.
This was bad news for the Swiss. Djokovic, who was going for his third Slam this year and his sixth over two years, has a 51-0 record at the US Open after winning the first set.
Surely he would soon be improving on his dominant 19-4 lifetime record over Stan. “The only way he can lose is if it’s physical,” claimed John McEnroe.
But Stan cut down on his errors, ripping one of his luscious backhands down the line to break, then saving three break points and racing to a 4-1 lead. Novak clawed his way back, only to falter at the end of the set when he netted a forehand to give Stan the second set, 6-4.
Now Wawrinka’s diesel was in gear; he was truckin’. Calm, disciplined and playing gritty defense, he won five games in a row and took an early third-set lead before Novak once again counterpunched to even the scintillating big-boy battle.
Down 6-5 and serving to force a tie-break, Djokovic played a distinctly un-Novak-like game. His usually fabulous backhand went long, and then another went wide, and, in a flash, he lost the game and the 76-minute third set, 7-5.
Novak explained that Stan “just steps in. He loves to play in the big matches. He comes up with his best game. He’s so solid from both corners. He’s got a good slice and an amazing one-handed backhand, all corners. Big serve. Moves well…He’s a very complete player…He hits a very heavy ball, especially from the backhand corner. Forehand is very flat…great chip, great slice. He can get you off the court…Physically, he’s very strong, so he can endure a lot.”
Wawrinka hit 18 third-set winners and he played with ease and confidence, while the Serb was about to collapse.
Djokovic was broken on his first service game of the fourth set and his body seemed broken in the third game. He hit the wall. Suffering from a painful toe injury, he grimaced and limped and didn’t bother to go after balls or simply went for broke. Down 3-1 (and before Wawrinka was to serve), he took a controversial six-minute medical time-out that many claimed was illegal.
What was legal was Wawrinka’s 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win to claim his eleventh straight final and his third Slam. Plus, he did what Roger Federer hasn’t. He beat Djokovic in a US Open final and won the Open over the age of 3O. Yes, he had his tough spells during the match. He faced 17 break points, but only dropped three – amazing.
What also was amazing was the first question in Djokovic’s press conference: “Does this match mean that tennis officially now has a Big 5?”
Wawrinka dismissed the notion. Then again, before the Open many dismissed the notion that there would be a Swiss champion and his name would be Stan – Stan the Man.