Dubai 2017: Stan Wawrinka, the quiet champion, falls to outsider Dzumhur
Stan Wawrinka is beaten in straight sets in his first match at the Dubai Duty Free Championships by Damir Dzumhur
Stan Wawrinka is one of the most softly-spoken men on the tennis tour, and a man who never seems entirely comfortable with his fame and high media profile.
Yet much about the powerful world No3 and Dubai defending champion speaks of bullish determination and a growing confidence in his place on the tennis stage.
It took a while, and who knows whether it was that quiet modesty that hindered the flowering of his powers with a tennis racket, or growing up in the shadow of one of the most popular and successful men ever to play the game, Roger Federer? Or did the rise up the rankings and success in Grand Slams allow him at last to show his true colours?
He said, on his way to his first Major title in Australia 2014:
“We all know that if Roger is playing his best tennis, he can beat everybody here, Me, it’s not the case. I have to play my best tennis. I have to hope that Novak is not in his best form or Rafa is not in his best form or Roger is not in his best form. It’s completely different.”
Since then, he has embraced the nickname ‘Stan the Man’ on his way to winning the Australian title that same year, the French Open in 2015 and the US Open last year. And he beat each of those three men on those biggest stages.
And the story of Wawrinka’s late blossoming has been oft repeated. How, with titles proving elusive and with confidence and ranking dipping in 2012, he determined to try one more time to fulfil his obvious potential.
He took on coach Magnus Norman, and his tennis became more aggressive and forward-moving, his physical shape sharper, his endurance greater.
The new model Wawrinka was soon on display in an Australian Open marathon against Djokovic, and little more than a year later, Wawrinka was a Grand Slam champion, went on to win his first Masters in Monte Carlo, claimed Roland Garros, joined with Federer to win the Davis Cup, and rose to No3 in the rankings.
And though still an unpredictable force on a tennis court, there has been no getting away from the fact that Wawrinka is a big-time player who delivers on the big occasion.
Now he was attempting to become only the third man in the 25-year history of the tournament to win titles in consecutive years. The other two? Federer and Djokovic.
And it should have been no problem. He opened against Damir Dzumhur, ranked 77, a man who had lost in the first round of three of his tournaments this year and had only 44 wins in his six-year career thus far.
If there was any question-mark this week about Wawrinka, it related to the knee problem that had disrupted the latter stages of his Australian Open run, though he assured media here on Sunday that he was confident he was well recovered, helped by rest and bypassing his scheduled Rotterdam defence.
“After one month, you have to wait and see how it reacts in matches at a higher level. I started tennis only last week, took the time I needed. In general, the last few days were OK. Been playing some good tennis.”
Wawrinka had never played Bosnian Dzumhur before, and he may have recalled that last year, he almost came unstuck in his first match against Sergiy Stakhovsky. So this year, he burst from the blocks to break immediately and took a 4-1 lead.
But Dzumhur found his feet and began to match Wawrinka shot for shot, even outplaying him on the Swiss man’s famed backhand wing. He broke back in the seventh game and held his own through to a tie-break.
There, too, the slight Bosnian man stayed on the offensive, going for this shots down the lines and defending with fine slice and variety. He aced to take a 6-4 lead and won the set, 7-6(4), with a backhand winner. He had made only five errors in the set, and was soon up to 14 winners with a love hold in the second set.
In contrast, Wawrinka lost his feel for the pace of the court and his opponent, offered up a break point with a backhand error, and conceded the break with a long forehand.
Another love hold from Dzumhur and it was 4-1, and some hot shots from the Bosnian, including a pitch-perfect lob winner, broke again. He would serve for the match after a wild smash from Wawrinka.
Now the scale of his achievement got to Dzumhur and he was gripped by nerves. He afterwards admitted, with a grin:
“My serve was working very well until that last game of 5-1. Oh, that was… I got a little bit tight. I felt it. And Stan felt it, too. So, he was just try to put some balls in the court. But in the end, that game of 5-3, I was again serving good and playing well.”
Indeed, he was, and at the second time of asking, Dzumhur served out a famous win, 6-3, after 72 minutes.
Wawrinka was at a loss about his form, and the growing tally of errors:
“I think I was missing a little bit something. Physically I was a little bit slow sometimes, so I couldn’t hit that hard from the baseline to push him back. I think I was a little bit too early in defence. [But] he was playing good today.”
He certainly was, though Dzumhur initially wondered if he would stand a chance:
“I mean, three games in, he was playing outstanding there. I couldn’t even touch the ball. I didn’t have a chance. So I knew that it wasn’t too much about my game. It was about his day. If he’s going to play like that, he’s gonna win.
“But after winning the first game, I started to fight, to grind, and I found some way to play, to stay in the game. Playing longer points was giving me more chances.”
It was doing himself a discredit to talk of ‘grind’. He made too many attacking plays, served at too good a level and mixed it up too well for such a word. And if he does the same against his next opponent, Marcel Granollers, he could even make the Dubai quarters.
And it so happens that his biggest win before today was against Tomas Berdych in Monte Carlo last spring, and the Czech is the biggest seed in this quarter.
Perhaps the slow-improving Bosnian will take a lesson from the mantra writ large on Wawrinka’s arm:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”