After breaking the serve of Rafael Nadal to go up 5-3 in the fourth set of the Australian Open final, Stanislas Wawrinka pointed to his head. It was a gesture the soon to be Swiss No. 1 and World No. 3 had made many times throughout the fortnight.
Then he banged his fist against that same head. Another gesture that appeared to not only sum up his evening, but in some ways, his career.
Wawrinka never believed he could win a Grand Slam title. It wasn’t that he didn’t think he was a great player or anything like that. For him, it was just not his place to even consider such a notion. That glory was reserved for the likes of Nadal and the other members of the now defunct “big four” that ruled the ATP Tour for the last several years. Aside from Juan Martin Del Potro’s 2009 US Open title run, no man outside of that once elite group of Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer had lifted a Grand Slam trophy. No wonder Wawrinka thought his chance at even reaching a major final was slim at best.
That personal viewpoint seemed to get only reinforced last year even though it was, in many ways, Wawrinka’s breakthrough season. His heartbreaking five set defeats to Djokovic both in Melbourne and then later in the semis of New York proved Wawrinka was getting closer. But would he use those losses only to come up short again and “fail better” as his now famous Samuel Beckett tattoo instructs? Or would he finally rise above what he thought was his expected place in the tennis pecking order?
Thankfully for Wawrinka it was the latter. He passed his first test this year in Melbourne by tangling with Djokovic in yet another dramatic five setter, but this time winning it 9-7 in the fifth. Then came the ultimate trial against Nadal, a man he had never beaten or even taken a set from during their 12 previous meetings. While much will be made about the back issue Nadal suffered with after the first set, ultimately it was up to Wawrinka to finish the match. For a while, it was unclear which Wawrinka would. The one who, before this event, always doubted he belonged with the very best on the biggest stages, or the one who proved throughout the tournament that he most certainly did.
And that’s why Wawrinka’s gesture in the next to last game spoke volumes about where Wawrinka had been and where he was going. This year’s men’s finals will be viewed as one about the body, but it really was about the mind. Nadal’s iron will is well-known, even when his body is not at its peak. But Wawrinka literally had to play two matches – the first one that started out with him blazing winner after winner against the World No. 1. The second – against not only his opponent but also himself as Wawrinka tested that newfound belief as he tried to navigate through his concern for his friend Nadal and his own desire to win his maiden Grand Slam title.
The head to head record between players is often used as a barometer to determine the outcome of their next match. In this year’s Australian Open, more often than not, that stat proved meaningless. For a man who, despite all of his talent, was thought to be mentally fragile in the toughest moments, Wawrinka dismissed that perception of himself on Sunday night. At times, it was not the most convincing final argument that his psyche was up to the challenge in the most important match of his career, but pass it he did nonetheless.
Wawrinka has no doubt inspired countless of his fellow, and now, former non-Grand Slam champion contemporaries on tour to perhaps “fail better” or even get their own inspirational body art. But now “the man”, as he’s commonly referred to, must learn to accept his new place in the top tier of the men’s game. How long he remains in that coveted space only reserved for Grand Slam champions, like himself, will likely be determined deep inside the once questioned but now proven head of Stanislas Wawrinka.