There’s always been a touch of the everyman about Stanislas Wawrinka. A multimillionaire elite athlete he may be, but on the ATP tour he is something of an outlier. Somehow, in a landscape that has cast Novak Djokovic as its nearly unbeatable man of steel, Rafael Nadal as its tenacious, unorthodox fighter, and Roger Federer as its graceful, elegant champion, it’s hard to find a role for “Stanimal”. With his rumpled shirt and those now infamous shorts, he looks just as likely to be sitting on the couch watching the Roland Garros final as to be playing in it.
It’s hard to believe that, not long ago, Stan Wawrinka was best known as Roger Federer’s doubles partner in their gold medal run at the Beijing Olympics. In the last 18 months, Wawrinka has had the most remarkable run of achievements – two Grand Slam titles, a Davis Cup win, and a Masters 1000 win. That compares favorably with just about anyone on the tour – the only player who has had a better 18 months is Novak Djokovic, and one suspects that the Serbian would be willing to trade.
A couple of years ago, Wawrinka started sporting the slogan “Stan the Man”. It seemed incongruous; a bold slogan for an unassuming player. Looking back, perhaps it was a reflection of his work with Magnus Norman, who has added a dash of confidence to a game that already teemed with powerful groundstrokes and brute strength. After all, he had pushed Novak Djokovic to the brink at the Australian and US Opens in 2013, the former being one of the best matches of the year. Nearly two years later, the once tongue-in-cheek invocation of “Stan the Man” is hardly a laughing matter.
In winning the Australian Open last year, Wawrinka not only made good on his own potential, but also left the door ajar for other players to make their mark on a tour long dominated by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Suddenly, a generation of players who had before lamented their bad luck in sharing an era with the Big Four, realized that there might be a chance for them to make a push for the big titles before time ran out. Even Wawrinka’s “fail better” tattoo suggests a man previously resigned to noble loss, rather than victory. In the last 18 months, there have been a few glimmers from Stan’s generation – Tomas Berdych’s strong run in Australia, Tsonga’s win in Toronto and run at this year’s Roland Garros, even Gael Monfils was looking for a coach to help him put it all together (sort of). Marin Cilic’s lightning in a bottle win at the US Open surely owes a bit of its confidence to the door Stan opened in Melbourne.
While others have challenged, no one else has connected the dots as Wawrinka has. It has not always been pretty to watch. Wawrinka has played some truly terrible matches since his win in Australia – his first round loss at last year’s Roland Garros and a best-forgotten slug between him and Djokovic in Melbourne earlier this year stick out. He has lost early in tournaments time and time again, but the highs he has reached; his clutch Davis Cup play, a testy match against Federer in the World Tour Finals semifinal, and his steamrolling of Federer, Tsonga and Djokovic this week in Paris, have been breathtaking. Where Federer outclasses, Nadal outfights, and Djokovic outbends, Wawrinka simply bludgeons. Power and strength, when used appropriately, can flatten everything in its path.
What might Stan’s second slam win means for ATP world order? Looking back, prior eras allowed the greatest of the game to coexist with the very good who managed to put together a golden run from time to time. For every Pete Sampras or Stefan Edberg, there was a Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, or Goran Ivanisevic — players who hit a streak and grabbed a big title or two along the way, instead of leaving the tour empty handed, as many of today’s top players likely will. Returning to an equitable distribution of titles has its upside – there is a joy in watching one of the supporting cast unexpectedly steal the show.
That said, only the heartless could not feel for Novak Djokovic. The Serbian’s transformation from wilting jokester to new age champion has been an act of sheer will. Before the French Open final, it was hard to imagine anyone beating Djokovic. With Nadal reeling and Federer unable to win the should-wins at times, Djokovic in his current majestic form is poised to stack up several titles over the next few years. Wawrinka showed today that threats to Djokovic’s dominance will come from all directions – not just from the three figures we’re used to. Still, it’s hard to imagine Djokovic ending his career without at least one Coupe de Mousquetaires on the mantel. For all the effort he has put into the game, it’s hard not to want that for him as well.
It won’t be long before this generation of tennis players moves on. While the Big Four era has felt like it would never end, for better or worse this tournament has shown that maybe it is soon to be a treasured memory. That isn’t to say that Federer and Nadal won’t recapture their magic from time to time. Or that Djokovic and Murray, both in their prime and peaking, don’t have many more battles and titles ahead of them. But the long era of peace and prosperity heralded by Federer in 2003 and continuing through last year is on the wane.
There shouldn’t be sadness in this moment. Instead, it’s a time to embrace a little bit of chaos, and to wonder at flashes of brilliance as they come from all directions. Today it came from an unassuming guy in plaid shorts with a wondrous backhand. The game is better for it.