Ever since he turned professional as a teenager in 2002, the Swiss man has been a formidable opponent He broke the top 100 by the time he was 20 and the top 50 a year later. His first breakthrough into the elite, a top-nine ranking, came more than five years ago at the age of 23, though he struggled with consistency that saw him slip in and out of the top 20 more than once since.
And throughout, his is a name that no-one has wanted to draw in a tournament. Yet he has rarely been the man to make the headlines, the man in the spotlight, the star of the show. For one came before him who did all that in spades—and happened also to be Swiss. For Wawrinka’s entire career, he has followed in the huge footsteps of Roger Federer.
For 2013 has seen the second Swiss make his second, and what is becoming a considerably more impressive, breakthrough into the top 10. This month, he rose to a career-high No8 and the very real prospect of qualifying for the ATP World Tour Finals for the first time.
Until now, Wawrinka has continued to trail his friend and compatriot in the race for one of the eight tickets to London next month. But when the two men arrived at the Shanghai Masters this week, they were separated by only 85 points, with Federer only a marginal leader at No7. They remained locked in those positions after winning their opening matches, but come Round 3, Federer lost to Gael Monfils. Within a couple of hours, Wawrinka had beaten Milos Raonic to reach the quarter-finals, and that earned him 90 more points than Federer.
The margin, then, between these two Swiss is a mere five points but the moment is huge, just at the achievements that brought Wawrinka to this unique place have been huge.
It began at the start of the year, a remarkable fourth-round match against Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open. Wawrinka lost, 12-10, in the fifth set but he later admitted it had done wonders for his self-belief, as did his victory over Andy Murray, for the loss of just three games, at the Monte Carlo Masters.
From there, it was victory in Oeiras and, in Madrid, his first Masters final since 2008. Along the way, he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, and went on to reach his first Roland Garros quarter-final with victory over Richard Gasquet.
Speaking to the ATP website last week, Wawrinka gave much of the credit to the hugely experienced Magnus Norman, his coach since April.
“I think experience helps. For me, I’m more mature. It’s a good time for me to play my best game. If you see the generation now, we’re all 28, 30 or 25. We don’t have so many young players. We’ve been here almost 10 years!
“[Norman] is a great coach, that’s for sure. He’s helped me a lot with my game on the practice side and a lot mentally too. He finds a way to give me a lot of confidence and as you could see in New York, I was feeling good on the court and really relaxed. He showed me a few things and pushed me a little bit more a couple of times. It’s not a big change, but a few things can make a difference at that level.”
New York, indeed, was another important milestone for Wawrinka. It became his first Grand Slam semi-final, and he did it the hard way, having to beat both Berdych and Murray again for another tilt at Djokovic. Once more, he came out on the losing end in five sets, but was not downhearted:
“It was a tough draw for me… but I played my best tournament for sure. It was my first Grand Slam semi-final and it showed that my level, when I’m there, can be really strong. I can play with the top players in the world and I hope I will have some chances to do it again.”
He added, in his ATP interview: “I feel I can challenge the top five in tournaments but I don’t know if I can challenge them all through the year…I really need to be focused on the end of the year, but then I need to see what is going to be my goal next year. I’m sure I can challenge them in one or two tournaments, but to be there all year with them… They’ve been so strong for so many years, it will be really tough.”
But he is challenging them. He may have beaten Federer only once, in 2009, in 14 meetings but he pushed him to three sets in Shanghai last year and came very close in Indian Wells this year, losing 6-3, 6-7, 7-5.
This year, though, he has won considerably more matches than Federer—47 to 36—and beaten more top-12 players. With his victory over No11 Raonic in Shanghai, he can count nine of them. Federer has beaten just two. And while Wawrinka has only thus far passed Federer in the race to London, he is on target to also overtake him by the year-end in the calendar rankings too.
For now, he wants only to get that London spot:
“I’m in a good position. I’m eighth in the race [now seventh]. But there’s a lot of tennis to play. There’s still a lot of points to take. I’m not thinking about that. I need to really focus on my tennis and my game, because the only thing I can really control is my game and how I practise and get ready for the tournament. That’s the most important thing for me.
“It’s a dream for tennis players to finish in the top eight and to play the World Tour Finals… it would be amazing for me.”
His next hurdle is Nadal, who halted his runs in Madrid and Roland Garros this year—and eight times before that—but who knows where this special year may head next for ‘Stan the Man’?
With Nadal, Djokovic and Ferrer already qualified for three places, and Murray withdrawn, there are still five places available in London. In contention, showing Shanghai points thus far, are:
4. Juan Martin del Potro, 4,100—still in competition
5. Tomas Berdych, 3,800—lost to Almagro
6. Stan Wawrinka, 3,150—still in competition
7. Roger Federer, 3,145—lost to Monfils
8. Richard Gasquet, 2,960—out in first round
9. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 2,830—still in competition
10. Milos Raonic, 2,770—lost to Wawrinka
11. Tommy Haas, 2,265—withdrew injured
12. Nicolas Almagro, 2,100—still in competition
13. John Isner, 2,060—out in second round
14. Fabio Fognini, 1,920—lost to Djokovic
15. Kei Nishikori, 1,795—lost to Tsonga [ill]
16. Tommy Robredo, 1,765—withdrew injured
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