January 26, 2014

Nerves of Steel

The tenor of this post changed multiple times as I watched this year's men's final at the Australian Open -- a stunning start, a rough injury, some huge momentum shifts. It was never clear until the very end what the outcome would be.

But ultimately the results spoke for themselves, as Stanislas Wawrinka, putting together a breakthrough performance throughout the fortnight, was consistently the physically and mentally superior player on Sunday. And his reward, appropriately, was his first career Grand Slam title.

The Swiss wasn't intimidated on this big stage, his first trip to the championship match at a Major. Pitted against 2009 champion and world #1 Rafael Nadal, he was unstoppable in the first set. He secured a break in just the fourth game and won every one of his first serve points. It was the first set he'd ever taken off Rafa in twelve previous meetings. He broke again early in the second, before things started to change. Nadal tweaked his back on a return, called for a trainer, and seemed to be down for the count. Wawrinka rolled through the second set, but with Rafa's injury, I began to think there would be a huge asterisk beside Stan's name -- after all, no one wants to win a match, much less their maiden Slam, against someone who's not playing their best.

But Nadal is nothing if not a fighter -- down two sets to none and still in pain, the thirteen-time Major winner finally found his game. He broke Wawrinka to start the fourth and confounded his opponent with off-pace serves teamed with a couple blistering winners. In the quickest set of the match, the Spaniard who was all but out of contention just a few minutes earlier, forced a fourth set and looked about to turn things around. When he got behind mid-way through the next set, he immediately broke back at love keeping the trophy out just out of reach again.

Ultimately, though, Wawrinka was able to stay tough. He broke again and served out the match, winning just the sixth, but by far the biggest crown of his career. He becomes the first man in over twenty years to beat both the #1 and #2 seed at a Major -- and the first ever to take down both Nadal and three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic in one fortnight. The victory caps a year which brought him some of his biggest successes and will vault him to #3 in the world on Monday, his highest ever ranking, for the first time ahead of countryman Roger Federer.

But more importantly, the way he's playing, it might just be the tip of the iceberg for Wawrinka. One of few people to crack the stranglehold Rafa, Roger and Nole have had on the Majors the last decade, at this one tournament he's squarely ended a long list of losses to the top guys. With confidence -- and now experience -- on his side, there's no telling what Stan can accomplish from here.

And the rest of the field will have to sit up and take notice.

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