Throughout its history, tennis has often celebrated its prodigies — the teenage phenoms who manage to upend the pecking order on arrival. But this year’s US Open has brought us a pair of champions whose careers had been qualified with “almost” and “close” for the first decade they spent as professionals. Yet, after a pair of exciting finals, Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka left the US Open not only with the trophies, but as examples of how perseverance can help a good player become a late-blooming champion.
After the stunning year she has had, Kerber came into the tournament as 0ne of the favorites, after Serena Williams, to win the title. What she did over the next two weeks is win every possible type of match she could — from the first round win by retirement, to grinding out the championship match in three sets against Karolina Pliskova, Kerber won blowout sets against Cici Bellis, comfortable ones against semifinalist Caroline Wozniacki, and some tough ones against Petra Kvitova and Roberta Vinci. What was most impressive about Kerber’s run was how routine she made it look — even when she wasn’t playing well, she found ways to win. Even more impressive, Kerber has only been a high profile contender since January, but she remained calm when facing the pressure of her new role as the hunted rather than the hunter. Now with the #1 ranking in hand, she is not playing to set all time records, like Williams, but rather to carve out her own corner of history in the sport.
Unlike Angelique Kerber, Stan Wawrinka was not a top-two contender to win this year’s US Open. His performance in the Slams this year has been up and down — a semifinal appearance at Roland Garros, but second and fourth round losses at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, respectively. And his recent form had not been inspiring — he was down match point against Daniel Evans in the third round, and thoroughly outplayed by Kei Nishikori in the first set of their semifinal. Yet, the more matches he played, the more confident he became, and by the time Sunday’s final rolled around, many recognized the big-match player who had won the 2014 Australian Open over Rafael Nadal and the 2015 French Open against Novak Djokovic.
The Djokovic-Wawrinka rivalry is a fascinating one. As much as Wawrinka has always been described as being in countryman Roger Federer’s shadow, it is in the battles against Djokovic that Stan’s late-career renaissance has been forged. Beginning with their epic five-set fourth round match in the 2013 Australian Open, Wawrinka has managed to consistently bring his best efforts to meeting the challenge of Djokovic, hitting out freely with his backhand, and forcing Djokovic to use every last bit of his formidable retrieval skills. No other player has been able to outplay Djokovic in the Slams as frequently in the last few years as Wawrinka has — of the six losses Djokovic has suffered in Slams since the beginning of 2014, half have been to Wawrinka. In the same time period, Djokovic has defeated both Roger Federer and Andy Murray in three Slam finals apiece.
The difference between Wawrinka and Djokovic in these matches has often been the courage Stan has brought to key moments in the match. Perhaps it’s because, as a late bloomer and not a prodigy, Stan played plenty of matches where is regular level wasn’t enough, and therefore knows that he must play boldly to win. Or maybe it’s the fact that he has won his Slams as an underdog, and can take the approach that he has nothing to lose. Maybe it’s that each Slam is a unique opportunity for Stan — he’s not trying to chase someone else for a place in tennis history, so each chance is just an opportunity to add to his own place in the sport. Whatever it may be, Stan played a beautiful yet brutal match, where the elegance of his groundstrokes was matched by his scrappy fight to stave off Djokovic’s attempts to wear him down.
As for Djokovic, courage in these finals is something he is keenly aware that he needs. If there is any issue with Djokovic, it is that he cares too much at times, and that overwhelms him. After all, he has recast himself entirely in an effort to surpass Federer and Nadal, and that effort extends to every part of his life, from diet to training to mindset. And, for the most part, it has worked. But, given the records Djokovic is chasing, every lost final is something he will take seriously, even if his two-Slam-winning 2016 season constitutes an amazing year by just about any standard.
For more than a decade, tennis has been in the hands of those making all-time history, whether it’s Nadal or Serena or Federer or Djokovic, but there is more to tennis history than those at the top of the record books. While the all-time greats often start young, and just don’t stop winning, much of the color and character of the tour lies with those who create their own pockets of history through their own hard work and determination. This fortnight in New York, two of those late bloomers got their due, and it was a pleasure to watch.