Swiss Indoors: Can Stan Wawrinka be ‘the Man’ in Basel at last?
Can Stan Wawrinka step up to the plate in Roger Federer's absence in Basel this year?
The Swiss Indoors has belonged to the ‘boy from Basel’, Roger Federer, for so long it is hard to adjust to a draw in this cosmopolitan corner of Switzerland without him. Seven times he has won here, and three more times he has been the losing finalist, reaching every final since his first title in 2006.
But this year, there will be another name on the Swiss trophy, and the Basel faithful will surely be hoping it is that of the current top Swiss, Stan Wawrinka.
There is every reason to think they will get their wish, too: Not only is Federer absent to rehabilitate the knee that underwent surgery at the start of the year, but the man he beat in last year’s final, Rafael Nadal, has also pulled out to nurse the wrist injury that forced him out of the French Open in June.
What’s more, Wawrinka arrives in Basel as US Open champion, one of four titles this year that also include Geneva, Dubai and Chennai. He made the final in St Petersburg, too—played, like Basel, on indoor hard courts—and the semis of the Toronto Masters and the French Open.
However, despite being in the form of his life and qualifying for the World Tour Finals earlier than in any year before, Stan has rarely been ‘the Man’ in Basel. His 9-12 win-loss record at the Swiss Indoors tells its own story, and his first-round exits in all four years since his semi run in 2011 reinforces it.
Wawrinka put it thus last year: “It’s always a challenge playing [at home]… 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 did find some good tennis last year, but drawn against the always-challenging giant of a man Ivo Karlovic, the Swiss still lost in three sets.
This time, Wawrinka opens with a challenge of an entirely different kind: fellow countryman, Davis Cup team-mate, and wild card Marco Chiudinelli. It could have been worse: One of the three wild cards is Juan Martin del Potro, twice the Basel champion.
For all that, the 31-year-old Wawrinka is a man who continues to grow in confidence, and to beat the best in the biggest matches. And seeded No1 in Basel for the first time, the pressure seemed to rest lightly on his shoulders as he talked ahead of the tournament.
“No, it doesn’t change the pressure. My seeding doesn’t change anything: Seeing the last few years, I can only do better, hopefully.
“I always put pressure on myself, but I’m feeling this will be a good week for me. I’m feeling good in general, I’m full of confidence taken from the US Open, so I want to push on well until the end of the season. There are three big tournaments where I want to play well, so hopefully I can start here.”
He referred to the Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals. In the former, he enjoyed his best result last year, the semis, in his 11th consecutive visit, but prior to that, he had lost three times in the opening round and four further times in the second round. In London, though, he has reached the semis in all three appearances.
What, then, of the nerves that are the constant bedfellow of pressure?
“I don’t see that as a problem. I think there are more players than we know who get nervous before the match. I think it’s part of the sport, of the job. You have to accept it. When you are nervous, it is completely normal, it means you care, it means you want to play well, you want to win. So you have to deal with it.”
Perhaps his growing experience at the very highest level is the key. He spoke eloquently of his almost paralysing nerves before his US Open victory, and afterwards explained how he had mastered them.
“Before the final, I was really nervous like never before. I was shaking in the locker room. When we started [talking] five minutes before the match, the last few things with Magnus [Norman, his coach], I start to cry. I was completely shaking.
“But the only thing I was convinced with myself was that my game was there. Physically I was there. Put the fight on the court and you will have a chance to win. And that’s what happened after few games, I start to believe in myself, start to be in the match. I was only focused on the match, not what can happen if I win the match. Is it the final of the US? No, I’m just focused what I’m doing on court.”
As for Wawrinka’s physical preparation, he has this year made a few changes in his schedule, opting into St Petersburg, and he then lost early in his only Asian tournament, the Shanghai Masters. His preparation, therefore, may well leave him fresher than much of the opposition come the closing stages of the season.
On that, though, he was coy: “We will see at the end. I would prefer to win more matches and have a better result in Shanghai, but I think, at the end of the season, everyone starts to feel tired so you have to stay strong. To stay there. As I say, there are three more tournaments before the end.”
He does know he cannot face the two men who head him in the rankings this week. No1 Novak Djokovic is resting after a rewarding but hugely demanding season, and will want to be in tip-top shape to fend off the challenge of No2 Andy Murray, who is closing in on the No1 ranking after his superb run of titles since reaching the final of Roland Garros. Murray heads the draw of the other ATP500 this week in Vienna.
However, there are some very ambitious opponents in Basel, including two who have also qualified for London already, No2 seed Milos Raonic and No3 seed Kei Nishikori, both drawn in the bottom half.
David Goffin, ranked 10 in the race—effectively No9 given Nadal’s withdrawal—is also in Raonic’s half, with the next in line, Marin Cilic, the only top-16 man in Wawrinka’s half. Even del Potro is in the bottom half.
Wawrinka’s first seeded opponent is scheduled to be Richard Gasquet, who won today in Antwerp so he may well be physically depleted. The semis then hold either Cilic or Jack Sock, who was losing finalist in Stockholm today.
With three places still to be filled and just two tournaments left for the hopefuls, Goffin, who is aiming for his first ever World Tour Finals, may count himself unlucky to face the unpredictable Marcos Baghdatis in his opener, followed perhaps by del Potro and then Nishikori—just to reach the semis.
No such points pressure for Wawrinka, but he would be the first to admit there are plenty of other pressures. The question in Basel this time is whether he can overcome them as well as he did in New York.
ATP Race to London
1 Novak Djokovic
2 Andy Murray
3 Stan Wawrinka
4 Milos Raonic
5 Kei Nishikori
6 Gael Monfils
7 Dominic Thiem
8 Tomas Berdych
9 David Goffin
10 Marin Cilic
11 Roberto Bautista Agut
12 Lucas Pouille
13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
14 Grigor Dimitrov
15 Richard Gasquet