“I’m the Swiss who loses,” Stanislas Wawrinka once joked about himself.
“I understand that because I’ve been here with Roger,” he explained in an interview last month. “Compared to him, I've lost a lot.”
The elephant in the Wawrinka living room has been that chap with the monogrammed ‘RF’ on his cap.
But Switzerland has gradually warmed to Federer’s sidekick, the public voting him “Swiss of the Year” in 2013.
If there was a moment when Wawrinka connected with his compatriots, it was last year after a memorable 12-10 in the fifth-set loss to Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park.
“Without doubt it happened in Australia when I lost to Djokovic,” Wawrinka said. “I left the court crying after five hours of battle. I was exhausted. From that moment, I sensed people saw me in a different way. I’d say they had pity … no, pity’s not the right word. No, they decided that I deserved it. It’s strange, but I suddenly sensed people were happy for me.”
Essentially shy, Wawrinka, 28, has evolved into his own man. In recent times, he has even ruffled Swiss feathers by criticizing the exalted Federer about matters such as his refusal to play Davis Cup.
“You don’t touch a monument,” he said only partly in jest.
Yet he and the senior Swiss remain mates, and inextricably linked. “Roger is totally involved in my career – positively and negatively, mostly positively,” Wawrinka said. “For many years I took advantage of being in his shadow. I quietly followed my own path without anyone paying attention and expecting me to do the impossible.
“And thanks to Roger, I’ve received invaluable advice – and become an Olympic champion (doubles gold in Beijing 2008).”
In 2013, Wawrinka blossomed, winning three titles and finishing a career-high No. 8. He also had another mammoth match with Djokovic, falling 2-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3 6-4 in the US Open semifinals.
Nadal’s 2013 was sublime. Returning from a seven-month injury layoff in February, he won the French and US Opens and eight other tournaments, went 75-7 and regained the No. 1 ranking.
Still, the Australian Open remains a particular challenge as he tries to win each of the four Grand Slams at least twice. Since his only title in 2009, he had to retire (knee) against Andy Murray in 2010, played hurt (thigh) almost all of the 2011 semifinals versus David Ferrer, lost in five hours and 53 minutes to Djokovic in the 2012 final and missed 2013 altogether because of his knee.
“It’s the Grand Slam I’ve had the most problems with,” Nadal said.
Going into Sunday night’s final, he’s 12-0 against Wawrinka, winning all 26 sets contested.
In a December interview, Wawrinka declared, “I know I can beat Djokovic, and that someday I’ll beat Nadal.” With one prophecy fulfilled (last Tuesday), can there be a second coming against fortress Nadal on Sunday?
The 27-year-old Spaniard always downplays his chances, modestly declaring at his pre-tournament media conference, “I’m going to try to find positive feelings. If that happens, I hope to be competitive.”
No surprise, he’s now poised to win his 14th Grand Slam, four from Federer’s record 18.
Wawrinka is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
“All my life,” he said, “I’ve had an impossible rivalry, which wasn’t my choice, with the greatest genius of all time. Sometimes that’s frustrating.”
The shackles could come off with a first Grand Slam title, however unlikely, at Rod Laver Arena.
TOM’S INTREPID TIP
Nadal vs Wawrinka
The big question is can Wawrinka break his duck and finally win a set against Nadal? He has come close, losing 14-12 and 12-10 tiebreaks. His brilliant form does get him a set, but Rafa rules again – winning his 14th Grand Slam title. Nadal in four.