“You Didn’t See That Coming. Did You?”
That’s what a friend said to me a day after the French Open men’s final that ended with Stan Wawrinka holding up the coveted trophy with a surprise but well-earned victory. “Stanimal”, as he’s known, may have seen the title in his future. But like my friend, few in the tennis world would have predicted Wawrinka winning against the man many felt was destined to finally do so in Novak Djokovic. Now that reality is slowly sinking in, including for Wawrinka, that yes he really did win another major, the next question for the “Stan the Man” is – can he do it again?
The answer is, probably, but don’t count on it. Wawrinka, by virtue of his Paris victory, now owns outright the title of the most unpredictable player in the sport. Yes, there are plenty of other players who are known for being hard to predict on court, most of them French, but even they haven’t had the roller coaster last 18 months that Wawrinka has produced. Remember, Wawrinka last year went from winning the Australian Open to having a mixed bag of results that included crashing out of the first round of Roland Garros. And Wawrinka’s form leading up to this year’s French Open suggested an early exit was likely. Not winning the whole thing.
Even Magnus Norman, Wawrinka’s coach, doesn’t know what to expect week in and week out from his charge. After Wawrinka won, Norman told reporters, “He’s a very interesting player to watch because you never know what to expect.” Wawrinka gives full credit to Norman for making him believe he could defeat the sport’s elite. But maybe we also should give Norman credit for sticking with a man who is very much like a Swiss box of chocolates – filled with unexpected sweet delights, but only after having dug past a few less than tasty morsels along the way.
Wawrinka, at age 30, is now playing the best tennis of his life for sure. But despite all of his newfound belief, and that incredible backhand of his, Wawrinka still feels like a player who has to seize the moment. He’s never going to be someone that can play at 50% of his capabilities and win the biggest matches. And he certainly still has the capability of losing to anyone on any given day as we’ve seen this season too.
If Wawrinka seized his moment, Djokovic, in some ways, let the moment seize him. While Wawrinka won the final, in large part, with 60 blistering winners from his racquet, Djokovic never was quite able to take the match away from his opponent. Djokovic, wanting to win his first French Open title so badly played a mostly defensive, subdued match. Debate continues as to why. Some cite competing tactics from both of his coaches. Others say Djokovic was tired from having played the day before to finish up a five set semifinal against Andy Murray. But, to be fair, others thought Wawrinka looked more tired having played a tough semifinal against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
After the loss, many tennis writers quickly assured Djokovic’s fans that he will most certainly win Roland Garros someday. Well, maybe he will. But, maybe he won’t. There’s no honorary trophies handed out at the Grand Slams, (Ask Ivan Lendl about that at Wimbledon. Or Andy Roddick). Djokovic certainly deserves to win Paris, but he will once again have to do it the hard way round by round. With Djokovic now in his prime, all the signs point to Djokovic likely having another opportunity to win, so long as injury or another surprise player like Wawrinka don’t end up as a final hurdle Djokovic cannot cross.
So many now want to put Wawrinka’s name within the list of the “Big Four”, a long used phrase to describe the ATP’s elite tier that suddenly feels irrelevant now. Wawrinka still often refuses to be placed in that category, and in some ways, he’s totally right to do so. It would be wrong to expect Wawrinka to start playing consistent top five tennis week in and week out post-Paris. If the “Big Four” still consists of the same stars (Djokovic, Federer, Murray, and Nadal) that make up the constellations tennis fans are using to looking up to every night, Wawrinka is the brilliant, blazing comet that streaks across the heavens once a year, usually at a Grand Slam. Or to put it another way, if the “Big Four” were an elite gentlemen’s club, Wawrinka would probably accept a dinner invitation, but show up wearing his now famous slash eyebrow raising red plaid shorts.
Ah yes, those shorts that no one except Wawrinka liked. Wawrinka may have joked that his shorts would be on display in the Roland Garros museum. But it looks like he got his wish after the tournament posted this on Twitter.
— Roland Garros (@rolandgarros) June 11, 2015
While his outfit will continue to cause debate in the fashion world, let’s hope that Wawrinka’s stellar performance in the final is not just regulated to a museum piece. As Wawrinka proved on the final Sunday in Paris, being bold never goes out of style.