Confident Stan Wawrinka relishes the challenge of finding his best at home
Stan Wawrinka is enjoying his best season so far as he gears up for the Swiss Indoors on home soil in Basel
It has been a thrilling couple of years for Swiss Stan Wawrinka, who emerged from the shadow of his compatriot Roger Federer at the start of 2014 with his first Grand Slam title.
Wawrinka became “Stan the Man” when he rose to No3 in the rankings—ahead of both Federer and Andy Murray—and he continued his hold on the top three via his first Masters title, and his first win in 12 attempts over Federer, in Monte Carlo.
And aside from a slip of a few places earlier this year, he has continued to hold his ground amid the top quartet ever since.
It has been a remarkable story of late-blooming success, or maybe more accurately a delayed realisation of his vast potential and power as a tennis player. For Wawrinka broke the top 10 once before, in 2008, but struggled with both consistency and confidence. Now, that all seems a thing of the past for the affable 30-year-old, as he currently enjoys his best season so far.
For the first time, he reached at least the quarter-finals of all four Majors: the semis in Australia and the US Open and the trophy itself at Roland Garros. He also confirmed his place at his third consecutive World Tour Finals earlier than ever before. He reached the semis on both previous visits to London, and few who saw his battle royal against Federer in last year’s tournament would play down his chances of taking a step further this time around.
So what, I asked, had happened two years ago to bring about this evolution?
“A little bit of everything—but confidence. Three years ago, 2013, when I came back in the top 10 and started to beat the top guys, I had a few changes in my game, a few little changes that made me be a better tennis player, but also the confidence I had on the court. So little by little, I beat the top guys and reached my top level again and again.”
He has, this year in particular, more reason than ever to feel confident. He has been one of just four players to beat the best in the world, No1 Novak Djokovic—and on what a stage, in what a style? After losing the first set in the final of the French Open, he stormed back with a blistering display to win in four with a tally of 59 winners. His performance will linger long.
Even the modest Wawrinka agreed it was special: “Amazing year, that’s for sure, to again win a Grand Slam… that’s always something very special—especially the French Open, especially beating No1 in the world, Novak, in the final. That’s something amazing for me. Two years in a row to win a Grand Slam, four titles this year, for sure it’s been something incredible for myself.”
And yet Basel has proved a perennial problem. Those who watched his last three consecutive first-round losses on his home stage could be left in no doubt about the nerves that gripped him. And in the 12 years he has played the Swiss Indoors, he has lost his opening match another four times.
Perhaps it is a sign of the ‘new Wawrinka’ that, when I asked him about the particular challenge of playing at home, he picked out one of his memorable semi-final Basel runs.
“It’s always a challenge playing [at home]. I had some great results here, beating [David] Nalbandian, who was No3 at the time [in 2006 to reach first semi-final]—and I have had some tough losses. I think [smiling] the last three years I lost in the first round.
“It’s never easy to find my best tennis here, it’s quite difficult for me, and yes, it’s a challenge for myself to find a way to play my best tennis. Hopefully this year I can do that.”
He will not have it easy: Indeed his first match brings one of the biggest challenges in tennis, the 6ft11in Ivo Karlovic, who also happens to be one of the highest-ranked non-seeds in the Basel draw. The huge Croat took the world record for career aces earlier this year, and though Wawrinka has got the better of him five times in six matches, their last in Cincinnati went to three tie-breaks.
Wawrinka gave a wry smile: “I think it’s never easy to play him, especially this year—he’s also playing the best tennis of his career. Has a lot of confidence.
“Playing him in Cincinnati was a really close match. You don’t have many chances against him that’s for sure. You have to take what you can, and play well from the first point, because you are under a lot of pressure and won’t have a lot of chances to break his serve. So you need to find your rhythm from the beginning to play really aggressive on your serve, because he’s playing really well this year… It’s going to be a tough challenge, that’s for sure.”
The challenge does not get any easier: His quarter holds the in-form No19 Dominic Thiem and the charismatic shot-maker Alexandr Dolgopolov. The semis could bring Marin Cilic or Rafael Nadal, though unseeded Grigor Dimitrov is also in that section. And looking towards the final, of course, it may well be old friend and rival—for titles but also for the affections of the Swiss crowd—Federer.
Basel should already count itself fortunate in its top two seeds: Few players are more popular than the Swiss duo, either at home or abroad. They did meet here in the semis in 2011, when Federer went on to win one of six home titles, but a final showdown would surely top every previous championship match played in the Swiss city where German and French dovetail so perfectly.