An appreciation of Wawrinka's graceful (and punishing) groundstrokes.
It’s impossible to talk about the last decade in men’s tennis and not mention the numbers. Roger Federer’s 17 grand slam championships. Novak Djokovic’s 30 Masters 1000 titles. Rafael Nadal’s nine titles at the French Open alone. By the time each of those three players has hung up his racket, there’s a good chance that collectively they’ll own every consequential record in men’s tennis. And then some.
Stan Wawrinka has no chance whatsoever at inserting himself into the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic class of mindboggling statistical achievements. He’s 31, and far too old to cover the enormous ground separating him from that triad. And in one sense that’s appropriate, because unlike his far more decorated rivals, Wawrinka makes tennis a must-watch sport for no other reason than the sheer beauty of his game.
That beauty was on display Sunday, when Wawrinka beat Djokovic in the U.S. Open Men’s final 6-7(1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 to capture his third grand slam championship and first U.S. Open title. Throughout the course of the near four hour match, Wawrinka enticed countless “oohs” and “ahs” from the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as he pummeled groundstrokes at absurd angles and sent Djokovic scampering all over the court. Wawrinka’s graceful one-handed backhand is often described as one of the most beautiful shots in tennis. On Sunday, the Swiss player showed how beauty can also be devastatingly effective, firing backhands down the line time and again for winners and using his cross court forehand and backhand to construct points to his advantage. His display of shot-making prowess ultimately proved too much for Djokovic, whose renowned defensive abilities broke down as the match wore on.
It didn’t help that Djokovic clearly wasn’t 100 percent healthy or that he suffered from toe blisters so severe they required medical attention in the fourth set. On paper, Djokovic should have been the fresher player. He received one of the easiest grand slam draws in recent memory, winning one match via walkover, watching two other opponents retire, and playing a semifinal against a player whose weak effort made some pundits question if he had tanked the match. (Wawrinka, on the other hand, had to fight off a match point in his five-set win over Daniel Evans, and slogged through difficult contests against the resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro and incredibly skilled Kei Nishikori; over the course of the past two weeks he spent 18 hours on court to Djokovic’s nine.)
But Djokovic’s physical problems cut far deeper. Since winning the French Open at the beginning of June, he has struggled mightily on the court, and it’s apparent that nagging maladies have been a contributing factor to the Serb’s recent diminished returns. In his post-match remarks, Djokovic even hinted that he considered not playing the U.S. Open on account of his ailing body.
That ailing body could not withstand Wawrinka’s onslaught of gorgeous and punishing groundstrokes. Near the start of the match, ESPN broadcaster Chris Fowler likened Wawrinka to a “diesel truck,” noting that the Swiss player often starts matches slowly but can become virtually unstoppable once he achieves momentum. That analogy works on a number of levels, because in addition to Wawrinka’s penchant for slow starts and stretches of pure dominance, he is one of the few tennis players who can wear opponents down through the diesel-esque power of his groundstrokes.
While Wawrinka’s backhand and forehand create an aesthetically appealing brand of tennis for spectators, they essentially function as body blows for his opponents. The effort required to continually chase down Wawrinka’s shots and return them with gusto devours extreme amounts of energy. It’s a level of energy many players simply can’t sustain over a best of five set match. This wasn’t the first contest of this year’s U.S. Open in which Wawrinka ground an opponent down by standing at the back of the court and firing away. Wawrinka is one of the few professional tennis players who can legitimately be described as stocky, and he couples his inborn strength with exceptional eye hand coordination to hit the ball with significant pace and topspin. It’s beautiful to watch and taxing on his opponents.
Wawrinka’s game certainly taxed Djokovic, whose injury riddled body could barely limp across the finish line in what turned out to be an appropriate ending to a surprisingly lackluster U.S. Open. Though the final grand slam of the season started on an ostensible high note, with the unveiling of the new retractable roof over Arthur Ashe stadium, this edition didn’t deliver its usual combination of manic fun and energy. On the men’s side of the draw, there was only one legitimately memorable match—Lucas Pouille’s fifth-set tiebreak defeat of Nadal. In a calendar year when the addition of the Olympics made an already crowded summer that much longer and more physically demanding, many players just seemed drained. The site of Djokovic struggling to finish the final served as an apt closing note.
Assuming Djokovic’s injuries aren’t career threatening—and at this point there’s no indication that they are—it’s safe to assume the world number one will recover in due time and resume his assault on the record books. What twists and turn lie ahead for Wawrinka are far harder to predict. Three years ago, very few people—if anyone—could have foreseen that by the end of 2016 Wawrinka would possess three grand slam titles from three different venues. It’s possible that the best Swiss player not named Roger Federer could snag a few more titles before his career ends. But it’s also possible that at the age of 31, his best tennis is behind him and that the 2016 U.S. Open will be Wawrinka’s last moment of ultimate glory. Either way, fans will and should remember him not for his career stats, but for the beauty and grace with which he plays the game.