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Positives in defeat for Wawrinka

Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer at the net after their match
by Alix Ramsay
Thursday 3 July 2014

With such a rapid rise up the rankings, could Stan Wawrinka's defeat by Roger Federer a blessing in disguise?

We begin with a contentious theory: losing in the quarter-finals to Federer could have been one of the best things that has happened to Wawrinka since he won the Australian Open. No, don’t laugh; we are being serious. Honestly.

On that night in Melbourne when all of Stan’s dreams came true and he beat Rafael Nadal, he could not quite believe it. The Big Four – Messrs Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – had so dominated the ranking and the major championships that no other chap with talent and a decent work ethic stood a chance. Many had tried but since Juan Martin Del Potro won the US Open in 2009, the next 16 Grand Slam titles had been divvied up by the Big Four. And yet here was Stan with the trophy in his hands and Nadal heaping praise upon him in his runner’s-up speech. 

Throughout his career, Stan had been forced to stand in the shadow of Federer, his fellow Swiss, his Davis Cup colleague and his friend. Stan did not seem to mind – it was hard to begrudge a man who was winning Grand Slam titles so often – and he always talked of himself as being a lesser light than the mighty Roger. But now, as a Grand Slam champion himself, Stan was his friend's equal. In fact, he was first among equals as he overtook Federer in the rankings and was now, officially, the Swiss No.1. This was going to take some getting used to.

“I really don't care,” the quietly spoken Wawrinka said. “For me doesn't mean anything to be No.1 in my country or not. I just want to be the best player I can, and that's it. I'm happy to be No. 3 in the world so far since Australian Open, and trying to stay there or to improve where I can.”

The problem for Stan was that everybody else cared even if he didn’t. For the first time in his life, he was the star of the show, the man in the spotlight and everyone wanted a piece of him. For a lifetime, he had lived quietly, dodged the media attention and happily stood aside as Federer was lauded and applauded. Federer could be Switzerland’s famous and successful sporting ambassador while Stan was happy to be the man with the beautiful backhand.

Now, though, he was being photographed, interviewed, stuck in front of TV cameras and wherever he went, he was introduced as the Australian Open champion. And if he was known as a Grand Slam champion, he expected himself to play like a Grand Slam champion – it was an awful lot to live up to and Stan was struggling.

He bumbled around the tour for a couple of months, losing matches he was in a position to win, until he reached Monte Carlo. There, he won his first Masters 1000 title, beating Federer in the final, and thought he had cracked it. His mind felt clear, he was ready to win again and the French Open was his next goal.

“I'm one of the favourites – I understand this, by the way,” he said before Roland Garros began. “But I'm far behind Rafa and Novak. They are really above the other players. When they are really on the courts they are difficult to fight against. But I have played well. I won the Masters 1000 and a Grand Slam. I'm playing good tennis. I can win against all players.”

And then he went out and lost to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the first round. He was back to square one.

But the way he played for the first two sets against Federer on Wednesday was more like the old Wawrinka, the man who really could beat the biggest and the best and the man who knew how to win Grand Slam titles. He ran out of puff a little after those two sets (thanks to the rain delays, he had to play three days in a row) but many men have run out of puff against Federer. The old GOAT never seems to get tired – he barely seems to sweat. But Stan had made him perspire more than a little and Federer was the first to admit it.

“I played as good as Stan allowed me to play, because he was playing really well right out of the gates,” Federer said. “He came out and was crushing the ball, forehand and backhand and even serve, so it was very difficult for me.”

Now that it is all over, Stan can take stock. He has a few weeks before the American hard court swing begins and he begins his run into the US Open. Now he knows that his game is back to where he wants it to be and that his mind is focused once more on the opponent in front of him. The fact that he pushed Federer so hard is proof that he is playing well and the fact that he fought so hard means that the Australian Open hangover is over.

Losing to Fed may indeed have been the best thing that has happened to him in a long, long time.

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