Wednesday, 14 September 2016 17:22 PM BST
Mind games: How Wawrinka came to master the battle between the ears

In some ways, Stan Wawrinka’s title-winning run in New York was his career in a microcosm.

In the first week, there were struggles: sets dropped to inferior players, a match point saved against a player ranked 61 spots lower, question marks over form and fitness. But as the hurdles blocking his path to a third Grand Slam crown increased in size, Wawrinka grew in strength. By week two, his mind and body were working in harmony. The backhand was more refined, the forehand was packing some extra punch and in the withering humidity, while others wilted, he flourished.

By the time the final arrived, his level of play had reached a crescendo as he produced a master class in big-point tennis, expertly holding serve from precarious positions while saving 14 of the 17 break points he faced. 

“No. I just want to push myself to the limit and see where I can go.”

When Wawrinka hired Magnus Norman on a trial basis in April 2013, he was a nearly-man of men’s tennis. Two years shy of 30, he had opened the season with a heart-breaking loss to Djokovic - 12-10 in the fifth set - in the Australian Open quarter-finals and the seeds of doubt were sprouting. He had contested 12 ATP finals, but just three titles decorated his somewhat barren trophy cabinet. A big-stage player he was not. 

“I never dreamed to win a Grand Slam,” he explained. “It was never a dream because for me it was way too far.” But then Norman helped him close the gap. Much like he did with Robin Soderling, the Swede who produced one of the all-time great upsets when he dispatched Rafael Nadal from Roland Garros in his prime, he instilled belief in his new charge. Wawrinka has now won his last 11 finals in a row, while his only three wins over world No.1s have come in Grand Slam finals. Swiss timing at its glorious best.

While Wawrinka can still be consistently inconsistent over three sets, in the art of the five-set match he has become a master. Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have won a combined 94 Masters 1000 titles in comparison with their 45 majors, while Wawrinka’s Grand Slam success far exceeds anything he has done at Masters level - a solitary victory in Monte-Carlo two years ago. Longer matches give him time to find his rhythm, solve puzzles and work his way into contention. In New York, he recovered from dropping the first set five times.

“In Grand Slams you play every two days five-set match,” said Wawrinka. “You have a little bit more time to make mistake. That's what happened with me. As you can see, I don't play my best tennis in the first round, but I'm trying to find a way to improve each match. Every match I won in a Grand Slam I take confidence of that, and when I arrive in the final I know that my game is there.”

Step-by-step progress. He could just as easily be describing his career.