How Stan Wawrinka Stepped Out of the Shadow of the Big Four, & Why It's (Probably) Not a Fluke
Following Stanislas Wawrinka's four set wrecking ball of an Australian Open Final victory, there was the usual cavalcade of talking heads putting asterisks and disclaimers on the underdog's unlikely win. Nadal pulled up lame in the second set with what appeared to be a nasty back injury, and could barely move or get the ball over the net for the remainder of the set before venturing off in search of some liquid relief from a syringe. Following a lengthy delay while Nadal was on the trainer's table, Wawrinka dropped the third set before finally dispatching Nadal in the fourth. The win didn't seem as lopsided as it really was, mostly due to the fact that Nadal had to completely change his game in the third set, taking more risks and not relying on patterns. As a result, Wawrinka battled himself for that third set before adapting to put the match away. As the immediate dust settles, the coverage continues to be more about Wawrinka's victory in the frame of Nadal's injury. While that might be normal when the top ranked player in the world loses, it is important to remember that Wawrinka was the far better tennis player in Rod Laver arena before Nadal's back injury. He almost certainly would've won the match, ironically perhaps in straight sets, if Nadal had stayed healthy.
Let's be clear about what Wawrinka did in this tournament: he beat the #1 & #2 players in the world in the span of five days. In what was the match of the tournament, the Swiss avenged his five hour, two minute marathon loss to Djokovic in the 2013 Australian Open Fourth Round with another grueling five set classic. Wawrinka has pointed to that 2013 match vs. Djokovic as a turning point in his mental approach, as he felt that he had finally risen to the level of the top men in the game. This is the stark reality of men's tennis in this era: if you want to win a Grand Slam, you will have to beat at least one of the top four players in the world. You will most likely have to beat two of them in the same tournament, following one another closely together. Lastly, you will also probably have to beat them in five sets over four+ torturous hours. What makes this task harder is the fact that those top four players take turns going on long, multi-tournament unbeaten streaks, generally only interrupted when they play one another. They are, in plain terms and outside of the rare exception, unbeatable.
Djokovic was in the midst of one of those unbeaten runs when he met Wawrinka in the quarterfinals on January 21st. Before that, Djokovic had gone 28 matches without losing (and 25 matches over three straight years of championships in Melbourne), dating back to September of last year's US Open final. He hadn't dropped a set in the tournament before going up against Wawrinka. The final result in that match would be 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7, a see-sawing instant classic that saw Wawrinka exorcise the demons of last year's fourth round. Unfortunately for Wawrinka, waiting for him in the final was Nadal, who was riding an 11 match winning streak of his own and looking his vintage #1 best.
How did Wawrinka do it? How did he go into a final against a man he had never won a set against, never mind a match (a career 0-12), and win handily?
The answer is better movement and positioning, elite shot making, and better tactics.
Studying this final shows us the changes in Wawrinka's game since he hired Magnus Norman as his new coach in 2013. They have further developed his backhand, which has become one of the best in men's tennis. In this rally, up 15-30 and 4-1 in a Nadal service game during the first set, he pushes Nadal wide with three consecutive backhands that increase in angle, setting up a spectacular backhand winner down the line. Because Wawrinka's backhand is so powerful, Nadal is kept honest on his forehand side, with his baseline coverage compromised.
Most improved is his footwork, which allows him to put himself in better return positions, use his power to dictate points, and hit more winners. The best example of this is a Wawrinka forehand during a Nadal service game. Up 15-30 in the game and 1-0 in the fourth and final set, he returns a Nadal serve into the body before playing three consecutive big shots to opposing corners, making the injured, mobility challenged Nadal stretch himself out over the court. The culmination: a loopy Nadal forehand that Wawrinka runs around and crushes early down the deuce court sideline. The only way to describe it is Federeresque: confident, graceful, and backbreaking. Wawrinka would hit 53 winners during the match; Nadal would hit 19.
The coup de grace would come on a double break point with Wawrinka up 3-2 and Nadal serving in the fourth set. Here we can see his improved movement/positioning, adaptation to Nadal's play, and shotmaking ability. Knowing Nadal likes to hit run around forehands, Wawrinka steps around the weak serve, hits it deep onto Nadal's backhand side (which Nadal runs around, just as expected) and smashes a forehand return down the line for a break. In what was a huge break point in the match, Wawrinka gets Nadal completely out of position and wins the point (and game) with two shots, exploiting a supposed Nadal strength (the inside out forehand) as a weakness. Though Nadal would break back to extend the match for another couple of games, it was a clinical point that sums up Wawrinka's better tactics during the match.
With his championship run, Wawrinka became the first man since 1993 (Sergi Bruguera) to beat both the #1 and #2 ranked players en route to a Grand Slam final victory, and the first man ever to beat both Djokovic and Nadal in the same tournament. Throughout the tournament, he played powerful, assured tennis. A general retrospective of his play during this Australian Open would describe him as relaxed, confident, and unafraid to go for the big shots when the opportunity arose, even if it meant the risk of unforced errors. You can describe this type of tennis as mercurial, tournament exclusive, or even surface dependent, but the fact of the matter is that Wawrinka has been playing this kind of tennis for almost a year now, including what is now a 10 match unbeaten streak to begin the 2014 season.
The main question that remains is whether Wawrinka has made the jump into the elite. When asking this question, it's important to keep in mind that men's tennis isn't a graduated spectrum of ability; it is an exponential one. There are men who ride the currents of technique and skill to a top 50 or even a top 20 rank, and then there are the brilliant storm clouds of exceptional talent and athleticism that roil above them, entrenched with infighting. Before this tournament, every Grand Slam had been won by one of the same four men (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, & Murray) dating back to Juan Martin Del Potro's victory at the US Open in 2009. That's 16 Grand Slams in a row. If you take that win by Del Potro out, you have to go back to Marat Safin winning the 2005 Australian Open for the last victory by a player outside the Big Four. That's 34 out of the last 36 Grand Slam tournaments won by just four different men.
It goes without saying, then, that a new men's Grand Slam winner is a rare event in this era and bears paying attention to. As we've seen, the shot making, movement, and superior tactics are there for Wawrinka. Slightly worrying are the unforced errors (49 in the final, along with 49 and 60 in the semi and quarter finals, respectively), but those are a natural byproduct of being a player that relies on big hitting to dictate matches. The last pieces of the puzzle are the consistency and mental strength to prevail in the five set slug fests with the other elite men, something that will be borne out in the matches to come this year. The recent matches between Wawrinka and the Big Four (starting last year with the Australian Open fourth round loss to Djokovic mentioned above) show a positive trend of being able to not only hang around for five sets when required, but of the maturation to out-strategize and at times overwhelm these elite opponents. Whether Nadal had been injured or not in this month's final, we can see that Wawrinka had a game plan that not only neutralized Nadal's weapons but exploited them as weaknesses.
If the Stanimal keeps playing like this, and there's no indication he's going to stop, we're going to have the Big Five sooner rather than later.