Australian Open 2017: Between Swiss stars Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka ‘it’s always special’
Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka will renew their Swiss rivalry in the Australian Open semi-final on Thursday
With 20 Grand Slams, more than 100 titles and over 1,500 match-wins between them, the small but perfectly formed country of Switzerland has every reason to be proud of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.
Certainly, this mountainous nation with a population smaller than that of Greater London has enjoyed extraordinary success during the Open era when it comes to tennis: Marc Rossett was a surprise winner of Olympic gold in 1992—one of eight titles—and also picked up the doubles French Open title in 1992 with compatriot Jakob Hlasek, who made No7 in the singles rankings himself.
Then came tennis super-star Martina Hingis, who almost swept the Grand Slam board as a teenager in 1997, went on to win five Major singles titles, 12 more in doubles and five in mixed doubles. She also picked up two WTA championships and spent 209 weeks at No1, and has twice returned from ‘retirement’ to find continuing success on the doubles tour—still age only 36.
But even those tennis accomplishments have been put into the shade by what followed. Federer, though only a year younger than Hingis, did not win the Wimbledon junior title until 1998, nor his first senior title until 2001, nor a first Masters until 2002. He saved his first Major title until Wimbledon 2003, and rose to No1 in 2004.
But he went on to break almost every men’s Open record going—including number of Major titles and number of weeks at No1. More remarkable still, those record numbers, at the age of 35, are still piling up.
After six months away from the tour following knee surgery, he may have arrived in Melbourne seeded outside the top 16 for the first time since 2002, but he has beaten Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Andy Murray-victor Mischa Zverev in superb style to reach his 13th Australian Open semi-final—almost twice as many semis as the second man—and should the four-time champion reach the final, he will contest his 100th match in Melbourne in pursuit of an 18th Grand Slam.
In Switzerland, Federer is justifiably a super-star, as far as this understated nation acknowledges such status. Federer lives, and plans to continue to live, in a homeland where he can walk the streets in relative privacy. For even among fellow high-achievers in sport, Federer has never been a shoo-in when it comes to awards.
Six times he has won the Swiss Sports Personality of the year in a span of 13 years at the top of his sport. Hingis won it only once. Wawrinka, too, waited until 2015 to pick his only award, two years after winning his first Major, and he lost out to Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara this year, despite a rising curve of achievements since winning the Australian open three years ago.
His cause, of course, has not been helped by following in the footsteps of Federer. Wawrinka showed prodigious if inconsistent talent early, winning the Junior French Open at 18, taking Federer to a tie break in Dubai at 19, and beating Federer in Monte Carlo at 22.
In 2008, he reached the final of the Rome Masters, broke into the top 10, and joined forces with Federer to win doubles gold at the Beijing Olympics.
So for admirers of Wawrinka’s tennis, there were plenty of matches to stick in the memory, as he showcased his all-court power, tactical smartness and—just like his famed compatriot—a single-handed backhand.
Wawrinka’s peaks seemed often to come on the big stages against the big names: the first match played under the Centre Court roof of Wimbledon in 2009, when he lost in five sets to Andy Murray; their replay at the US Open the following year, this time a win in four; and in 2013, he put the wind up Novak Djokovic not once but twice on Grand Slam stages, in Melbourne and New York.
However, in the interim years, his form took a serious dip, almost to 30, and he came close to walking away from tennis altogether. But with an inspirational tattoo added to his armoury—“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”—he took on a new coach, worked harder than ever, and became one of the oldest first-time winners of a Major with his first victory in 13 attempts over Rafael Nadal in Melbourne in 2014. It made him the top-ranked Swiss, over Federer, for the first time.
He said at the time: “To win a Slam, to be No3, both for me are a big surprise… I saw Roger winning so many Grand Slams in the past, so now it’s my turn to win one.”
Yet never has Wawrinka expressed resentment about the huge shadow that his friend cast over his own achievements, and even with his first Major talked only of Federer’s support:
“Yeah, Roger is a good friend. He’s for me the best player ever. He’s been there since so many years. He was struggling a little bit last year [in 2013 with back injury], but except that, he’s an amazing player, amazing friend, because he always wants the best for me. He’s always texting me. Even when he lost, like in the US Open [last year], he was the first person to text me before the match or after the match… Yeah, I didn’t call so many persons, but my wife, my daughter, my sister, and Roger call me. I know that he’s really, really happy for me. He always wanted the best for me.”
That was borne out by Federer’s assertion in Basel the previous autumn while he, like Wawrinka, was still competing for a place at the World Tour Finals:
“I’ll be happy if Stan qualifies. If that meant I would miss it [WTF], I honestly don’t care: It means he was the better player for the year. I’m always happy for his results, to the degree that I’m almost happy if he beats me.”
Come tomorrow, though, the late-blossoming Wawrinka, reigning US Open champion, seeded No4, is the favourite to beat the man with whom he shared Davis Cup glory at the end of that 2014 season—another first for Switzerland.
It will be the 31-year-old’s 700th tour-level match, his 22nd meeting with Federer, but although Wawrinka has only won two matches against his friend since that first in Monte Carlo, just one of the last six, and has never beaten Federer on a hard court, he has looked determined, strong and confident in the place of his first victory.
In beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters, he recorded his 250th hard-court win: his power game, in fact, looks made for hard courts, and this year’s fast conditions will give his serve and backhand even more zip than usual.
Little wonder that his more decorated compatriot, who is now the oldest man to reach a Major semi-final since 1991, has surprised even himself at how strongly he has performed, and rates Wawrinka as the favourite.
“I think now that I’m in the semis, feeling as good as I am, playing as good as I am, that’s a huge surprise to me. If someone would have told me I’d play in the semis against Stan, never would I have called that one for me. For Stan, yes, but not for me.
“I think in the beginning, [Stan] was really struggling on faster courts. I played him in Rotterdam and other places. You could sense in his footwork, the way he was returning, that he was uncomfortable on them.
“That’s why it was incredible for me to see that his first Grand Slam he was going to win was the Australian Open. If I would have called any Grand Slam for him to win it was always going to be the French, because he moved so effortless on clay.
“I think he’s done incredibly well on all the other surfaces… he’s become such a good player, I super respect that, that the guy is able to transform his game around like that, in his footwork, in his mind, also in his game plan. That’s his transformation, and I like what I saw.”
The respect remains entirely mutual. Of their imminent contest, Wawrinka said:
“It’s going to be a great match, for sure. Last time I think I got killed in the US Open [in 2015]. He was playing way better than me, moving really well, really aggressive from the court… He’s playing so well since the beginning of the tournament. He had a little bit some hesitation in the two first rounds, but since that he’s really flying on the court. It’s great to see him back at that level.
“For sure now I’m more confident with myself [than in the early days. But] against Roger, it’s always special because he’s so good. He’s the best player of all time. He has answers for everything. But I managed to beat him in a Grand Slam [Roland Garros in 2015], so we’ll see.”
He, Federer, 15,000 fans in the Rod Laver Arena, and eight million Swiss back home—plus many millions more worldwide— certainly will see. It promises to be something rather special.