As Daniil Medvedev put a regulation backhand into the net, to lose the fourth set tie-break 7-2, Stan Wawrinka looked up at his box and tapped his head with his forefinger. For the past half hour or so, the muscular Swiss had gone about breaking through the intricate web Medvedev had woven.
Slowly, then surely, he started winning the court position and started powering the ball off both flanks. The Russian, ranked fifth in the world, may have been the in-form player, but the 34-year-old Wawrinka had more than a decade’s worth of big-match experience. He knew very few could hold court when he played on his own terms. Making his move in the middle of the fourth set, the Swiss overturned a two sets to one deficit to beat the fourth seed 6-2, 2-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 in the fourth round of the Australian Open on Monday.
As far as the rankings go, it was his biggest scalp since coming back from a knee surgery in 2017. Wawrinka reckoned it was his best too.
“I think last time I played so well was before the surgery,” said the 2014 champion after the three-hour 25-minute contest.
“I’m finding solutions. Really tough to play against Daniil. I was not playing with confidence in the second and third sets, and I had to fight against myself to play a little bit against my game. But I knew it was coming. I had to fight, to stay with it, stay positive and, yeah, I'm happy with it.”
Three-time Grand Slam champion Wawrinka had gone into the match with a 0-2 career record against the fourth seed. As an up and coming 21-year-old, Medvedev gave a first glimpse of his Grand Slam credentials when he defeated the then world No 3 Wawrinka in the opening round of Wimbledon in 2017. The Russian then won their quarterfinal contest at the 2019 US Open in four sets during his breakthrough run at the US hard court series.
And it looked like Medvedev would extend the winning streak as Wawrinka, after a sizzling start, lost his way in the second and third sets.
The Swiss was irresistible in the opening set as he made 85 percent of his first serves, gunned 16 winners (to only eight unforced errors), and dropped only four points on his serve to pocket the set in 31 minutes.
But the Russian was unfazed by Wawrinka’s heavy hitting. At 23, Medvedev has already built a reputation for his point-construction and problem solving. Known as ‘The Wall’, the 6’6 Medvedev started grinding out the points. Unsettled by the depth and spin the 23-year-old put on the ball, Wawrinka started faltering. He couldn’t quite hit through the ball and was drawn into a lot of long rallies, some going beyond 20 shots.
It was another crafty display of percentage tennis from the Russian, who made only two unforced errors in the second set, and six in the third to push ahead. At the other end, the Swiss, suffocated by Medvedev’s incredible defence, struggled to find his range. He made a total of 27 unforced errors, and found only 17 winners in the second and third sets.
Medvedev flipped the first-set scoreline, breaking Wawrinka’s serve twice to win the second set 6-2 and a break in the seventh game of the third was enough to take his two sets to one up.
The Swiss got the wheels turning again in the fourth set. Though Medvedev was still looking unflappable, Wawrinka started lasering the ball into the corners. He stood much closer to the baseline, and waiting to pounce on any opportunity that came his way. Quite against the run of play, in the fourth game, a backhand down the line winner gave him a look at a break point for the first time since the opening set. Three games later, he pushed Medvedev to a deuce point with a beautiful drop volley.
Though none of those shots resulted in a break, Wawrinka had started pushing back and taking control of the baseline battles. The pressure told on Medvedev in the tie-break as he made two forehand errors right at the beginning to concede a 3-0 lead. The Swiss ripped a backhand down the line to set up a 4-1 lead and, a minute later, dug up a brilliant half-volley to roll to 5-2. A service winner and a forehand error from Medvedev saw Wawrinka seal the fourth set 7-6.
In five attempts before this, the Russian had never won a fifth set and he came nowhere close to even troubling Wawrinka in the fifth on Monday. Medvedev’s frail attempt in the decider, which he lost 2-6, will once again open the discussion on the Next Gen’s readiness, physically and mentally, in five setters, which separate the men from the boys.
Meanwhile, Wawrinka, who crushed 71 winners past the 23-year-old, improved his record in five setters to 29-20.
“It's amazing to keep playing here, at that level,” he said. “I'm playing, traveling around the world, playing in front of people, getting a lot of emotion from it. I love the process, also the way you have to try to improve, the time you need to put in the practice court to get to your level. I don't know how many years left. I want to do the maximum with it.”
The Swiss, whose last title came way back in 2017 at the Geneva Open, will take on another Next Genner, Alexander Zverev, in the quarter-finals on Wednesday. Though Wawrinka has a couple of last-eight finishes in Grand Slam since coming back from injury, he is yet to make the semis.
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2020 19:19:43 IST