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Stan Wawrinka motors along after comeback, but worrying signs about his long-term future hard to ignore

There’s a fine line between being privileged and being spoiled. We are privileged to be living in the era of the Big 3 (that’s Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic). But are we also spoiled by their excellence, to the point that we hold all other players to the same, impossibly high standard?

Federer takes six months off and returns to win the Australian Open. Nadal takes long breaks all the time and yet keeps reappearing like he had never left. Djokovic loses motivation for the sport and undergoes surgery but rebounds to win Wimbledon and the US Open in succession.

So when Stan Wawrinka re-joins the tour after a six-month, surgery-induced layoff, surely he should be winning titles and competing for Slams in no time, right?

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka returns the ball to Canada's Milos Raonic during their 2018 US Open men's match August 31, 2018 in New York. / AFP PHOTO / EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinkan has 16-15 win-loss record this year thus far. AFP

We are spoiled, yes. Years of witnessing historical accomplishments have made us forget that not everyone is a superhuman like Federer/Nadal/Djokovic. Agreed, Wawrinka can sometimes go into supersonic mode and take on the avatar of an omnipotent being (how can anyone forget that 2015 Roland Garros final?). But in the interest of fairness, nobody should have expected him to get back into the champions’ circle right away.

Still, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that something’s not quite right in Wawrinka’s comeback. It’s been nearly nine months now since he returned to the tour, and while it’s not a surprise that he hasn’t made a deep Slam run or won a title yet, it is telling that he has barely played an entire match looking like his old self. If his physical conditioning is not where it needs to be after this long, will it ever be?

It’s not about the number of matches that Wawrinka has lost; it is about the way he has lost, and the players he has lost to. In the St. Petersburg 250 tournament this week, Wawrinka scraped past his first two opponents (7-5, 7-6 against Aljaz Bedene and 7-6, 7-6 against Karen Khachanov) and dominated the third (6-3, 6-4 against Damir Dzumhur), raising hopes that he was finally ready to win a tournament again. But then he ran into Martin Klizan in the semifinal, and was outgunned 7-5 in the third.

Now Klizan is a bit of a flame-thrower himself, and it’s not unusual to see him catch fire every once in a while and upset a more accomplished opponent. But what was unusual was watching Wawrinka flail about in desperation towards the end of the match. He just didn’t seem to have any time to launch his patented bullets; his movement was nowhere close to what it used to be.

Worryingly, that has been the pattern in nearly all of Wawrinka’s losses this year. If his opponent is having a good day (read: not making a lot of unforced errors), the Swiss is not able to gain any sort of foothold in the match – because he is struggling to stay in points long enough to elicit forced errors.

Admittedly, Wawrinka was never the best defender, even in his prime years. But he was always supremely fit, and never seemed to be gasping for breath or struggling to change direction the way he has been this year. And remember, the crowning glory of his career so far – that earth-shattering Roland Garros match against Djokovic – was as much about his explosive attack as it was about his efficient movement on the clay. He could hit so many thunderous winners that day because he kept maneuvering himself into the right position; no matter how much Djokovic made him run, Wawrinka was always a step ahead.

Wawrinka is one of the biggest hitters we’ve seen in recent times, so it may sound bizarre that I’m talking about his defense. But unlike some of the other members of the Big Boy club, like Juan Martin del Potro or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Swiss is not the kind of player who rips open a point by unleashing a missile groundstroke out of nowhere. Instead, he stands several feet behind the baseline and works his way into a point, and looks to end it only when he has the chance to properly open up his shoulders. Those big swings need time and space to be put in motion, and for that you need to be spry enough to get into the right position point after point.

Wawrinka is 33 years old now, and is unlikely to get any spryer than he currently is. You can see that he’s trying his best, but you wonder whether he’s fighting - an uphill battle that’s only going to get steeper with each passing day.

Back in May, Wawrinka was thoroughly upbeat about how his comeback was going about, despite losing in the opening round of Roland Garros. “I won 3 Grand Slams in my career and I know what it takes to do it. And my goal is to get to my top (level). Sooner or later I will be (there),” he had said after losing to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Paris.

The optimism was less evident in August, when he was bounced out of the Washington first round by Donald Young. “It’s tough to not win a lot of matches so then you start to think too much on the court,” he said after that match. “I feel I’m really close but at the same time, really far.”

He did go on to play a fine match in Canada after that, pushing Nadal to his limit in a 5-7, 6-7 loss. There have been other seemingly positive results too – the escape against Nick Kyrgios in that same tournament, the win against Kei Nishikori and the thriller against Federer in Cincinnati, and the twin upsets over Grigor Dimitrov in Wimbledon and New York. But the cupboard of moral victories starts looking a little emptier on closer inspection; it’s hard to give too much weight to wins over the inconsistent Kyrgios and Dimitrov, especially since they both barely showed up when they faced Wawrinka this year.

The Swiss slugger has a 16-15 win-loss record this year, which looks a lot better than what it was in the first half of the season. And if he keeps plugging away, there’s no reason why that winning percentage shouldn’t improve even more; even a less-than-full-strength Wawrinka is good enough to win a majority of the matches that he plays. The real test, however, will continue to be the way he performs at the top tournaments, and against the top players.

Wawrinka has made a name for himself by playing big on the big stages. He was never the most consistent player in the day-to-day grind of the tour, but on the right day, with the right kind of motivation, the stars and the shots would align for him to create the perfect storm. The ferocious forehand, the surprisingly nimble footwork, that backhand, even the sharp serves and volleys – ever so often, Wawrinka would make everything work in sync and get the entire world talking about how his shots keep going ‘Boom!’. And how his opponents, even the GOAT kind, had no answer.

The Wawrinka we have come to admire (and fear) has never been a small-tournament or small-opponent guy. But is that just our spoiled selves talking? Would it really be such a bad thing if Wawrinka never reached another Slam final?

It’s been a huge privilege to watch Wawrinka repeatedly create shot-making spectacles of the most sizzling order over the last few years. Maybe we should leave it at that, and appreciate his comeback for what it is – an attempt to continue doing what he loves, irrespective of the results.

And if he somehow overcomes the odds and signs and goes on to win big again – well, that’ll be a privilege to witness too.


Updated Date: Sep 23, 2018 19:42 PM

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