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Steve Flink: Wawrinka steps up again

4/21/2014 3:00:00 PM

Ever since Stan Wawrinka startled the tennis world by securing his first Grand Slam title at the end of January in Melbourne, he has been a primary target for players looking to bring down a man of newfound exalted status who is no longer simply a contender. Wawrinka established himself at the Australian Open as an elite competitor by virtue of his towering achievement, arriving in the upper echelons of his sport, realizing his life had been altered irrevocably.

The Swiss understandably did not find it easy adjusting to the more burdensome world in which he now resides. In his first singles appearance after his Australian Open championship run, Wawrinka won a Davis Cup match against Serbia. But in the two Masters 1000 tournaments that followed, Wawrinka was found wanting. He lost 6-1 in the final set at Indian Wells to Kevin Anderson in the round of 16, and fell at the same stage of the tournament in Miami, bowing out 6-1 in the final set again, this time at the hands of the gifted Alexandr Dolgopolov. That pair of defeats was disconcerting in many ways. He was injured during his en encounter with Anderson, but, in the last set of his meeting with Dolgopolov, Wawrinka did not compete with much fervor.

And yet, after his extraordinary exploits this past week at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, Wawrinka has demonstrably shown that his Australian Open journey was no accident. Now he has captured his first Masters 1000 crown ever on clay, a surface that suits him far more than most people realize. Wawrinka clearly validated his triumphant run “Down Under”, and served notice that he will be a serious threat for the next few years at the game’s premier events. It will be no facile task for Wawrinka to win another major, but his state of mind has been substantially altered, the vulnerabilities in his game have sharply diminished, and confronting the sport’s greatest performers is no longer nearly as daunting to him as it once was.

Consider what he did in the final of Monte Carlo. Wawrinka faced his friend and Davis Cup doubles partner Roger Federer in the first all-Swiss singles final on the ATP World Tour since Federer was ousted by big serving Marc Rosset at Marseille 14 years ago. Federer owned a 13-1 career head to head lead over Wawrinka, and had clipped his compatriot no fewer than eleven times in a row. Wawrinka’s lone triumph over Federer was in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo five years ago, only days after Federer married longtime girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec. To be sure, Federer knew full well that he was confronting a different individual in Wawrinka, a late bloomer who had already ended a 14 match losing streak against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and a 12 match losing streak against Rafael Nadal in the Melbourne final; Nadal, moreover, had never conceded even a set to Wawrinka over the course of their rivalry.

Undoubtedly, Federer was well aware of how many scores Wawrinka had settled earlier this year. Federer understood that his challenge this time around would be more comprehensive, and he surely recognized that he was up against a wiser, tougher, and more formidable adversary. Be that as it may, the early stages of the contest looked like business as usual for the 17 time major singles champion.

The history of Federer’s series with Wawrinka, and the deep reverence that the latter unmistakably has for the former, was evident at the outset. Here was Federer, the majestic icon who had a remarkable career record of 78 wins against only 38 losses in finals. And there was Wawrinka, who had lost 9 of his 15 final round career clashes. Here was Federer, a revitalized figure in 2014 after a distressing and often dismal 2013 season, poised to capture his second singles crown of the year after taking only one title last year. There was Wawrinka, looking for a season leading third singles championship of 2014, but wondering if he had the gumption to topple not only his friend but a sporting legend who had often beaten him before they even walked on the court.

The script initially looked familiar. In the opening game of the confrontation, Wawrinka was ahead 40-30 but soon found himself break point down. But he managed to work his way out of that unenviable corner, taking Federer’s return of a first serve and driving it deep to his rival’s forehand side. On the run, Federer was forced into an error. Wawrinka put six of ten first serves in, and stubbornly held on for 1-0. Both players held with ease the next two games, but Federer was in a precarious position when he served at 1-2. Down break point in that fourth game, Federer sent a forehand volley crosscourt, but Wawrinka tracked it well. On the run, he had a decent chance to steer a forehand passing shot down the line for a winner, but drove that crucial shot long.

Rather than being down 3-1 and giving Wawrinka a burst of encouragement, Federer was back to deuce.  Federer made it safely to 2-2. Wawrinka had missed out on a chance to perhaps take control of the first set. Unsurprisingly, Federer made his move in the fifth game. Wawrinka led 40-30, but missed a forehand inside in, driving that shot into the net. Wawrinka garnered a second game point, but Federer’s backhand return was struck impeccably, rushing his adversary into an error. From deuce, Wawrinka was guilty of a forehand crosscourt unforced error and a backhand crosscourt driven long off a deep ball from Federer. Federer had the break for 3-2, and then he held on from deuce in the following game, moving to 4-2 with a cagily delayed serve-and-volley behind a second serve, provoking an errant backhand crosscourt return from an off guard Wawrinka.

Federer was not entirely in the clear. At 4-3, he fell behind 0-30. An unstoppable inside out forehand from Federer lifted him to 15-30, and then Wawrinka wasted a significant opening. A looped return from Wawrinka brought a relatively weak reply from Federer. Wawrinka was poised for an inside out forehand winner and a double break point opportunity, but he missed flagrantly. Federer held on at 30 for 5-3. Wawrinka was up 40-0 in the ninth game before Federer rallied to deuce, but Wawrinka held on from there. Serving for the set in the tenth game, Federer swung a first serve wide in the deuce court that Wawrinka could not handle at 30-30, and then a heavy second serve kicker wide to the backhand provoked another return error from Wawrinka. Set to Federer, 6-4.

Yet early in the second set, Wawrinka made it abundantly clear that he was undismayed by the loss of the first set. He held at 15 for 1-0. Serving at 30-15 in the second game, Federer double faulted. Wawrinka took utter control of the next point with a barrage of big strokes, forcing a backhand slice wide from Federer. At break point down, Federer missed a routine inside out forehand, an inexplicable mistake on a point of that consequence. Wawrinka had taken a 2-0 second set lead.

But the first point of the next game was crucial. Wawrinka closed in for a high forehand volley, only to punch it wide, playing that shot much too fine. Federer broke at love for 1-2, closing that game with a glorious backhand passing shot winner, threading the eye of a needle down the line off an awkward miss-hit forehand approach from Wawrinka. Federer was twice down break point in the following game, but he lured Wawrinka into a backhand error on one, and used a wide kicker to set up a forehand winner on the other. Level he was at 2-2.

As Wawrinka held for 3-2, rain started to fall, delaying play briefly while both players sat in their chairs at the changeover. They played through the rain for a while before conditions gradually improved. Federer was attacking at every opportunity. From 30-30 in the sixth game, Federer held on with a sparkling backhand angled drop volley that was unanswerable, and then a perfect serve-volley combination setting up a high backhand volley winner. From that juncture at 3-3, both players held confidently to set up a critical second set tie-break. In his three service games, Wawrinka conceded only four points; Federer swept 12 of 13 points on his serve during that stretch. Most remarkably, Wawrinka went zero for five on first serves in the eleventh game, yet still lost only a single point. The severity of his kick second serve was stifling Federer on the high backhand return, over and over again.

On they went to the second set tie-break, with Federer hoping to finish off a straight set triumph, and Wawrinka determined to make a third set mandatory. Wawrinka commenced the tie-break with conviction, slicing his first serve wide in the deuce court. Federer barely made contact on that arduous return. Wawrinka was off and running. With Federer serving at 0-1, Wawrinka raised the trajectory of his backhand crosscourt second serve return, coaxing Federer into an error. Although Federer managed to take the next point, Wawrinka was still a mini-break ahead at 2-1. He protected that lead sedulously. Wawrinka surged to 3-1 when his solid crosscourt forehand drew a surprising forehand mistake from Federer. Then Wawrinka advanced to 4-1, serving-and-volleying, moving forward unhesitatingly for a high forehand volley winner.

Federer was in a deep bind, and he knew it. He took his two service points to close the gap to 4-3 but then Wawrinka stepped into a short ball off the forehand and drove his shot into the clear for an outright winner. At 5-3, Wawrinka outmaneuvered Federer, who faltered off the forehand. A jubilant Wawrinka screamed with unrestrained glee as he reached triple set point. Once more, Federer was unwavering, taking the next two points on his serve, acing Wawrinka on the latter. Now Wawrinka served at 6-5, knowing this could well be the single most important point of the match from his standpoint. He met the moment commendably, serving out wide to Federer’s backhand, closing in tight on the net, putting away the high return. He had come through handsomely in the clutch. Set to Wawrinka, 7-6 (5).

Federer had given Wawrinka every conceivable chance to reveal some insecurity during that tie-break, but Wawrinka wasn’t blinking. Federer lost only one service point and fought hard and well, but Wawrinka was simply superior, not giving up a single point on his serve to force a third and final set. Federer knew the complexion of the contest had changed radically, but seemed at a loss do anything about it.  In the opening game of the final set, Federer made it to 30-30, but he was on his heels now. Wawrinka was dictating the tempo almost entirely. He crushed an inside-in forehand to provoke an errant forehand from Federer. Wawrinka seized control at break point, outplaying Federer forthrightly from the backcourt, going down the line off the forehand to provoke a netted backhand from a beleaguered Federer. Wawrinka swiftly held at 15 for 2-0 despite a double fault at 30-0.

The third game of the final set was pivotal. Wawrinka was thoroughly determined to gain an insurance break, while Federer was fighting in vain to prevent it. At 30-40, Federer erased a break point against him, putting away an overhead for a winner. He then had a game point, but Wawrinka took it away spectacularly. Wawrinka lofted a lob off the backhand that was deep enough to force a weak smash from Federer, who still worked his way back up to the net with one of his patented, disguised forehand slice approach shots to the forehand of Wawrinka, who went low crosscourt with the pass, making Federer try a short down the line low forehand volley. Wawrinka ran it down energetically, stayed low, and passed Federer cleanly off the backhand.

Federer was out of ideas, and devoid of solutions. He tried a backhand drop shot from too far back, sending it into the net. Down break point for the second time, Federer was on the defensive, and Wawrinka knew how to exploit it, rolling a forehand crosscourt for a winner at an acute angle. Wawrinka had no reason for apprehension any longer. He was ahead 3-0 in the third set, up two breaks, and unstoppable. The rest was a formality. Wawrinka held at 15 for 4-0, serving predominantly to his opponent’s forehand, extracting errors with that tactic.

Federer held on for 1-4 but Wawrinka had too large a cushion and too much confidence to squander it. He held at love for 5-1 before Federer held one last time for 2-5. Serving for the match, Wawrinka was composed, purposeful, and clear in his convictions. He lost the first point, but swept four in a row, closing it out fittingly with a forehand inside out winner on match point. Wawrinka had prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2. For the last set-and-a-half, he was decidedly better than Federer from the backcourt. Wawrinka tightened up his game considerably, dictated play almost incessantly, served intelligently, and made Federer resort to defense far more than the 32-year-old would have wanted. In the end, Wawrinka played the match largely on his own terms. Federer ventured forward with a good measure of success, and volleyed admirably. His court coverage was exemplary.

But all of the running eventually took its toll, and Wawrinka was the fresher and fitter player down the stretch. Thus Wawrinka came through to capture the biggest clay court title of his career. Considering his recent difficulties, including some embarrassing moments of ineptitude during the recent Davis Cup tie with Kazakhstan, Wawrinka must be applauded for how he elevated his game so sweepingly in Monte Carlo.

In the semifinals, the 29-year-old Swiss upended David Ferrer 6-1, 7-6 (3) with supreme discipline, superb execution and aplomb. He never lost his serve in the match, and pushed Ferrer around mercilessly from the baseline with controlled aggression. He surged into a 5-0 first set lead, and never really looked back. Ferrer somehow managed to hold serve six times to set up a second set tie-break, but Wawrinka was too solid in that sequence and a double fault from the Spaniard at 2-5 essentially sealed the deal.

Federer met Djokovic in the other semifinal as they battled for the 34th time in their illustrious rivalry. It had the makings of another classic between the Serbian and the Swiss, but that was not to be. In the opening set, Federer had a break point at 4-4, and he stepped around his backhand in the ad court to unleash a crackling inside out forehand return. Djokovic fended that shot off with typical obstinacy, taking his backhand early and guiding that two-hander down the line to draw an error from Federer. In the following game, Djokovic had Federer on the ropes, reaching 15-40, double set point, but Federer came out of that dark corner with a bright and almost unconscious display. He had Djokovic on a string at 15-40, approaching to the backhand to force a passing shot error. At 30-40, he got up to the net again to win the point with an overhead.

This was a magical spell for Federer. His drop shot at deuce sat up for Djokovic, but Federer anticipated the crosscourt response from the Serbian, lunging for a forehand volley and punching it into the open court. He soon held on for 5-5, but Djokovic took a 40-0 lead in the eleventh game. Federer collected five points in a row from there to get the break as Djokovic feebly sent an inside out forehand into the net off a trademark chipped backhand return from Federer. Federer served out the set, and cruised through the second set as the ailing Djokovic offered little resistance. Federer now leads the Serbian 18-16 in their rivalry.

In any case, Djokovic had injured his wrist, which had been bothering him for ten days. He had received injections and different treatments, and then he cruised through his first two rounds in Monte Carlo at the cost of only two games.

But then he had a rugged test from Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain in the quarters. The Spaniard took the first set from Djokovic and made him play countless protracted rallies across an arduous second set. Not until 3-3 in the second set could Djokovic find a way to start pounding his forehand freely and commandingly, to “pull the trigger” as they say in the trade. He won nine of the last ten games, but the effort required to compete in the early evening amidst damp conditions with heavy balls strained his wrist considerably.

Against Federer, Djokovic wore a heavy strapping for the wrist that extended close to his elbow. It looked uncomfortable to say the least. From 5-5 in that opening set, he was clearly suffering intense pain in the wrist. The second set of the Federer match was non-competitive. Djokovic could not serve with his customary speed and hitting forehands was complicated. After the match, he announced he would be taking time off to heal the wrist, although he did not know how long he would be gone. This injury could set his French Open aspirations back decidedly.

As for Federer, he had a bizarre week in many ways. Taking on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters, the Swiss wildcard was two points from defeat no less than four times before coming through to win 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-1. This was a classic case of Federer failing to convert on break points, a malady of sorts that has plagued him in many important matches across his career. In the first two sets of this compelling encounter, Federer squandered 13 break points spread out over six different service games.

At 5-6, 0-30 in the second set, Federer was on the brink of extinction but he fended off a penetrating forehand down the line from the Frenchman with a solid backhand crosscourt, and Tsonga pulled a forehand wide overanxiously. Federer swept into the tie-break from there, but then squandered a 6-3 lead in that sequence. Tsonga rallied to 6-6 and was serving, but bungled an inside in forehand at that propitious moment, and that was a devastating blow to his morale. Federer marched to victory from there, breaking twice in the final set. Federer competed steadfastly in that contest, and then played some inspired tennis against the injured Djokovic before bowing in the final. His form fluctuated markedly over the last three rounds.

Meanwhile, eight time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal was hoping to secure a ninth crown in Monte Carlo, but he bowed out listlessly in the quarterfinals against countryman David Ferrer, losing to his fellow Spaniard for only the sixth time in 27 career clashes. In turn, Ferrer had not beaten Nadal on clay for ten years. The first set lasted 85 minutes and was hard fought, concluding in a tie-break. Nadal won the first point but dropped the next seven with a flurry of mistakes and misjudgments. He fell behind by two breaks in the second at 5-2, took two games in a row, but could not prevent a determined Ferrer from prevailing 7-6 (1), 6-4.

Nadal was unemotional and downcast for the whole match, and rightfully criticized himself for allowing Ferrer to dictate the rallies almost entirely. Nadal did not assert himself enough off the forehand, and his backhand was unusually vulnerable. He spoke after the match about the lingering psychological wounds he has been carrying with him ever since a sudden back injury hindered him in the Australian Open final against Wawrinka. He admitted that he can’t find his customary intensity, that he lacks his usual “inner fire”, and is very distressed with the way he is playing.

Nadal needs to start recovering his game and rebuilding his psyche this week in Barcelona as he seeks a ninth title there. He has plenty of time to put everything back together for a run at a ninth crown in Paris, but the first thing he needs to do is to forget about Australia, stop worrying constantly about protecting ranking points, and start reminding himself that there is a reason why he is indisputably the greatest clay court player the game has ever seen.

Meanwhile, the road to Roland Garros will be fascinating. Wawrinka will be a strong contender there for the first time. He now is No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Race to London because he has amassed 3000 points alone from his Australian Open and Monte Carlo triumphs. Federer could be a big threat if he competes in Paris, but he has hinted that he could miss the tournament after 57 consecutive appearances at the four majors if his wife gives birth to their next child around that time. As for Djokovic, his status is uncertain until he finds out how long he needs to stay away from the game to heal the wrist. If Djokovic is out for a long while leading up or possibly through the French Open, Nadal would become an even larger favorite.

For the time being, Stan Wawrinka must be delighted to have opened his clay court campaign so magnificently. As was the case after Australia, Wawrinka will find that the harder work is ahead in trying to demonstrate that he can play at this level week in and week out, most importantly at the majors. In turn, can he avoid disappointing losses to those with lesser rankings and reputations? The jury is still out, but the feeling grows that Wawrinka will make his presence known quite frequently in the latter stages of Grand Slam events over the rest of 2014 and 2015.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.