‘Stan and deliver.’ It was one of the many scribbles emblazoning t-shirts around Rod Laver Arena in the build up to the Australian Open 2014 final. Could Stanislas Wawrinka stand up to Rafael Nadal, a player he had failed to take a set from in 12 previous meetings?
It was pretty much unthinkable. Before this tournament began, even he had thought so. And yet none of us could have known how much that sentiment would prove to be true.
To play an injured opponent can be as difficult as playing a complete one. So many players have been thrown in that situation, acutely aware that the focus is on their own game, that it is theirs to lose. And they forget how to play.
The proof was in the proceedings. Wawrinka was playing beautiful, breathtaking tennis before Nadal’s injury took hold. He battered the casing off the ball for over an hour, running Nadal from side to side to open the gap, and then boom, deliver the winner. Leading by a set and a break, he looked like Robin Soderling, Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis all-in-one. Unbeatable.
“I feel I play my best tennis during one set and one break. That's for sure. I was feeling really good on the court. I was moving well, feeling really aggressive, and I play my best set for sure by far,” Wawrinka said.
But then Nadal, back seized and legs locked, received a medical timeout and treatments, and the Swiss lost his stride. He finished the set in nervy fashion, but then lost the next. Forgot how to play tennis. Lost his head?
“It was difficult to focus and to still play good because the match was really strange,” he said. “He get injury. I saw that. He wasn't serving at all. He wasn't moving during one set. Then was a completely different match. I had to focus on myself, to try to find the way just to win it.”
As the painkillers kicked in and Nadal found his second wind, Wawrinka wobbled again. Up 4-2 in the fourth set, he delivered the worst game of his entire tournament. His delightful backhand and fearsome forehand were mistimed and off-cue. He threw Nadal a lifeline.
But it was momentary. Two games later, one final forehand finding open space, he won the battle of brain against back. And he became the first Grand Slam champion not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray in the five years and 36 majors since Juan Martin del Potro on a big night in New York in 2009.
“I will need time to realise what I did in these two weeks,” Wawrinka said. “Because at the end, even if Rafa was injury, I think I deserve that Grand Slam because I won against Djokovic, No. 2; I won against Rafa.”
This was a big night in Melbourne. An awkward, upsetting, crazy one, too. But one which saw a softly-spoken Swiss turn tennis upside down through his own performance, not just what happened on the other side of the court.
“The problem is I didn't play well because I was waiting for him to miss, and that was a big mistake from myself. Because I was nervous, I was like, ‘Okay, miss, miss, make a mistake’, because I'm not going to win the match because I'm nervous; I start to realise that I can win the Grand Slam,” Wawrinka said.
The first man to down the top two seeds at a major since Sergi Bruguera in 1993, Wawrinka beat world No.2 Novak Djokovic, snapping his Australian Open and match-winning streaks, and then beat world No.1 Nadal, preventing him reaching 14 Grand Slam titles and a double career Grand Slam. No man had beaten them both to win a major before.
“I never expect to win a Grand Slam,” Wawrinka said. “I never dream about that because for me, I was not good enough to beat those guy.”
“Before today for me wasn't a dream. I never expect to play a final. I never expect to win a Grand Slam. And right now I just did it.”
This is not Stan the also-ran. This is Stan the Grand Slam man.