For just two weeks, he led his illustrious compatriot, Roger Federer, in the race toward the season’s end, but with 24 tournaments to his name against Federer’s 18, he could only sit and watch as his elder colleague garnered points from his very first win in Basel.
It’s a mind-boggling time of the year for men’s tennis rankings, especially this year, with the race to the sought-after World Tour Finals still far from its conclusion. But Wawrinka, just like Federer’s other rivals at the Swiss Indoors, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet, has to exceed his best 18 results so far this year—effectively reach the Basel semi-finals—to add more points to his tally. For Federer, Basel is his 18th points scorer.
But the race between the two Swiss men was far from done for 2013. The 28-year-old Wawrinka, who has never outstripped his friend and rival Federer in the overall rankings, was enjoying a career-high No8 ranking there as well as in the ‘Race to London’.
What’s more, unlike Federer, he had no points to defend in Basel, and few to defend in Paris either. And then, of course, there was the lure of the World Tour Finals where Federer was last year’s runner-up. And as Wawrinka came to Basel on track to qualify for London for the very first time, he might have yet another chance to close the gap.
Exciting times indeed for Wawrinka: a career-high ranking, a strong chance of reaching the World Tour Finals, and a very real prospect of becoming the top-ranked Swiss not just in the race but across the board.
His success had come in large part from an enviable consistency—quarter-finals or better in 12 events so far this year. But it had also come as a result of the stunning wins that punctuated his year. Among a personal-best 47 match-wins, Wawrinka scored no fewer than seven over top-10 players. Twice it was Berdych, twice Andy Murray, there was David Ferrer and also fellow rivals for London, Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Even so, it had perhaps been two losses that marked Wawrinka as force at the top of the game. Both came to Novak Djokovic, both by the smallest of margins after the finest of displays. In the fourth round of the Australian Open, the Swiss lost, 10-12 in the fifth set, then in his first ever US Open semi-final, he led by two sets to one before going out in five. But as afterwards admitted, it proved to him that he belonged with the top players. And how.
In Basel, it was still five-time champion Federer—playing here for a 14th time—who stole the opening night show, but there was more of a buzz around Wawrinka than in any of his previous nine appearances. Twice he had lost out in the semis—in 2011 to Federer. This time, he would most likely have to beat a different top-10 man, Juan Martin del Potro, to advance further than that—but Basel believed, as did Wawrinka.
The draw in its early stages also seemed in his favour. His first match pitched him against the 65-ranked Frenchman, Edouard Roger-Vasselin, who Wawrinka beat in their only other match—though it took three sets on Chennai’s hard courts last year.
There was one small ray of hope for the 29-year-old Frenchman, however: a career first ATP final earlier this year in Delray Beach. And he reached the quarters last week in Moscow.
It all looked fine for the Swiss in the opening game, a swift hold to love, but Roger-Vasselin replied in kind and hushed the home crowd by earning two break chances in the next game. They came courtesy of two poor net rushes from Wawrinka, and he soon snuffed them out, but failed to convert a chance in the next game.
So the warning signs were there early. Wawrinka was mis-timing the ball, mis-judging his approaches and missing a lot of first serves. Sure enough, in the seventh game, he went 0-40, and the Frenchman snatched a break that he would hold to the end of the 6-4 set.
Wawrinka’s serving stats certainly painted a gloomy picture: He had hit just 24 percent of first serves into play, won only four of them and barely half of his second serves, too.
The second set opened just as poorly, and two successive forehand errors conceded an immediate break. He worked a chance to break back in the next game, and again in the sixth, but a combination of errors from Wawrinka and some brave serve-and-volley plays from Roger-Vasselin maintained the advantage for the Frenchman.
There were certainly signs that Wawrinka was physically tight: He constantly jiggled between points, attempting to loosen himself up, and then sat on one of the line-judge’s chairs at the ball-change. But nothing seemed to help: He played a dreadful concluding game to concede another break and the match, 6-3.
It subdued both players and crowd. The hand-shake was taken in near silence and Roger-Vasselin did not take the customary bow of thanks. But fortunately for his chances in Paris and for London, he assured the press that his tightness was due not to physical problems but almost entirely to nerves:
“It’s more about me, about how I was feeling to play here in Basel in front of the Swiss people. I always want to do well, I always try to play good. For me, it’s like Gstaad sometimes, I’m too nervous, I’m tight. I think too much about what to do in the match, and I always make a bad choice. But that’s life, and I have to accept that. So far, it’s my best year and I’m quite happy with the year I’ve had. It was just a bad day.”
He concluded that he intended to head early to Paris to practise. And as much as his result here is a blow to Wawrinka’s London campaign, perhaps the break he now has will give him time to rest the legs that have served him so well through a long, tough, but record-breaking year for the Swiss.