Stani the Mani Meets His Moment

22 Jan

“Good things in life come to those who go for it!”


So read the sign in the coffeeshop bathroom this morning. Seems Stanislas Wawrinka and I get our caffeine from the same place. He must have seen this affirming message, too, for he played like a warrior champion, possessed by the idea of victory and, especially, of atoning for past shortcomings and opportunities lost.

Stani’s always had the game to be great. Indeed, at many points his game has been great. But, today, in his third five-setter in a row with world number two and six-time major champion Novak Djokovic, the sizzling Swiss stared down his demons and got the job done. He affirmed his greatness.

Part of me feels like it doesn’t even matter what comes next. Sure, facing hard-hitting Czeck seven-seed Tomas Berdych – as opposed to world number one Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon champ Andy Murray, or the game’s greatest player of all time, Roger Federer – presents a tremendous opportunity for Stani to ride the momentum of his triumph against Djokovic and do something he’s never done before: advance to the final of a major championship. But, in at least one way, the hard, important work is already done.

Every sports star – every person, really – faces a tiny handful of moments in life when they have a chance to either succeed or fail. By “succeed”, I don’t just mean winning a game, getting a promotion, or finishing first in your bar’s weekly trivia game (though, that latter bit would represent a huge personal conquest).

No, by “succeed”, I mean breaching the frontier of what your physical talents and mental capacities seem to afford you in terms of potential, and some how pushing it just a little farther, over the line, to do something that never quite seemed possible, but the accomplishment or lack of accomplishment of which determines whether one has truly succeeded – be it in sport, in job, or in love.

Versus Djokovic, Stanislas has already had those moments. Two times, in fact. Once at last year’s Australian Open, in the round of 16, when he dropped a titanic, six-hour clash in what would go on to become the longest tennis match played in 2013. Then, at the US Open, later in the year, Stani again had the Serb on the ropes, taking a commanding two sets to one lead, and playing such a dominant brand of tennis that, at times, Djoker seemed resigned to defeat.

But Djokovic is actually never resigned to defeat (living in a bomb shelter for part of one’s childhood has a way of building resilience, I guess), and just as soon as he’d fallen, the Serb came back from the brink and leveled the match at two sets all. Stani had pushed his skill back to where it was when he was deep in that fifth set against Djokovic earlier in the year in Australia. Again, he stared into the frontier, across the line that stands at the junction of good and great, on the other side of which rests true, potential-bettering success. And, again, Stani the Mani came up just short, failing once more to meet his moment.

All that changed today, or tonite, or whatever (day and nite sort of lose meaning to me during the fortnite Down Under). Because, today, he stared down his demons – and there were plenty of them, such as when he squandered a 40-0 lead at 3-4 in the fourth, allowing Djokovic to capture the break and then serve out the set to level at two all, or in the fifth, when he was pushed deep into service games on several occasions, and seemed ready to buckle under the endless confidence of Djokovic and the same nerves and self-doubt that’d plagued the Swiss in their two prior major meetings, or even in the last game, when he found himself two points away from a life-altering victory. This was his moment to slip, to not meet the moment, to do just as he’d done before and remain on the wrong side of the good-great divide.

But, on this occasion, it was actually the Serb who buckled under the pressure, missing a “gimme” shot (by Djokovic’s ungodly standards) at 30-all, after stuffing Stani with a body serve on which the latter barely, awkwardly got his racauet, only to nudge it just over the net, setting Djok up for a routine sitter forehand, but one that, for some reason, the Serb tried to carve into an angled drop shot and missed narrowly, but clearly, wide.

He then buckled again on match point, when, after a big, hard-to-reach serve out to the Swiss’ back-hand, which came back with a weak, floater reply, the Serb, smartly following his serve to the net, pushed a routine, head-high forehand volley just wide, giving Stani the match – and, along with it, his peace, his success, his moment.

For professional athletes, like anyone, these moments matter. The interviewer asked Wawrinka after the match whether, having coming so close to victory in his two prior meetings with Djokovic, during this meeting, he truly believed he could pull out the match. Playing it icily, as top athletes are trained to do in these types of encounters, Wawrinka calmly explained that, although he was nervous, he simply stuck to his game and believed (read: hoped) that would be enough.

But I know better.

Anyone who’s been in that situation, stared into the void of true success, and not capitalized on it, knows better. They know the nightmares that come, and stick, when you get to that moment and don’t see things thru.

You know what it’s like. You still regularly have nightmares and daydreams about that triple match point you had at 16 against your junior tennis nemesis, against whom you’d come so close several times before, and against whom, now (read: then), you finally seemed on the cusp of getting over this great personal hump. You recall vividly the exhilaration you felt when the court opened up late in the point, at 6-5, how you’d pulled him wide off the court, to your right, and rushed the net, for what seemed to be an easy volley to win the point, to close the deal, to cross the line. You still remember the way the ball felt coming off your racquet, and, of course, you remember all too clearly how it felt watching your forehand volley, on a trajectory into a beautiful sea of green, empty space on the other side of the net, felt, as it clipped the tape and bounced back toward you, as you finally succumbed to the 110 Tucson heat in which you’d been playing for well over three hours at that point, which for every moment up till the present, had seemed like your friend, only to abandon you devilishly in your moment of greatest need, and leave you gagging as you had to, then, summon strength to switch sides at 6-all, and continue on with the breaker. And you definitely remember lying on the grass outside the court after losing the match four points later (somehow you had managed to claw out one more point) as your mom poured boiling hot water on your head, in an endearing, if unsuccessful, attempt to ward off exhaustion. But your fatigue was uncleansable, the type you can’t wipe off so easily. The type that still haunts you, all these years later, even as you’ve gone onto bigger and better things, on and of-the-court. It haunted you when you walked onto your college’s Division 1 tennis team; it haunted you when you became captain, as a junior; it haunted you as you relished several other on-court joys with your teammates, and took your game to new heights.
Still, you come back to this memory. To that moment in Tucson, where you had a chance to enter the void, the void you’d trained endlessly to befriend, to get to know, but that you had found endlessly beyond reach. Despite it all, despite everything you’ve done, you’d give anything to go back to that moment. To that volley. To hold your wrist just a little bit firmer. To push your racquet just a bit more toward your target. To do what you’d done routinely, reflexively a million times in practice. But you can’t. You can’t get back there. When the moment came, the currency you had in the personal tank wasn’t enough for the price of admission.

Comparing the stakes of some junior tennis long ago in Arizona to the stakes of the match between Wawrinka and Djokovic in the quarterfinals of this year’s Australian Open is like comparing the stakes of your 8-year-old son’s student council presidential election to the campaign to elect the leader of the free world. But, just as every U.S. presidential aspirant wants with all their being the prize of the world’s highest office, your 8-year-old wants with everything they have to experience a personal triumph that, for them, is no less significant than moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Because, when you have a chance, when any person has a chance, to reach a personal height, to the achievement of which they’d dedicated their whole existence for some considerable period of time, that’s all that matters. It consumes you. And, if you don’t reach it, it haunts you.
That’s as true for a top tennis player as it is for some junior schmucks duking it out on the back courts in Tucson, or for the eight year old trying to win student council votes during snack time.

And that’s what Stanislas felt out there today in Melbourne.

For, had he lost again after surrendering yet another sizable lead, and had he not had a chance to stare down Djokovic on a similar stage in future, there’d have been no consoling him.
You can actually imagine Wawrinka five years in the future, in his mid-30s, having just a couple years ago wrapped-up what was, by pretty much everyone’s estimate, a career that vastly exceeded expectations. No one really expected Stani to crack the top ten, let alone stay there. No one thought he’d overtake Roger Federer to become the top Swiss player, or to reach the semi-finals of a major. In fact, it would’ve only been Stani and a small contingent of coaches, family, and diehard fans who would have known and believed that he could have done so much better than that.

Imagine the mental anguish. Stani, playing the scene out again and again in his mind, wondering why things didn’t go differently, longing for one more chance to meet his moment.

He’d remember staring over the net at Djokovic at some absurdly deep, tight point in one of their five-set encounters, knowing at that moment, with certainty, that he had the physical tools to beat this opponent, but wondering, at the same time, how Djokovic could always just stay so fucking cool, so frighteningly confident in moments of such intense pressure.

He’d remember the thousands of hours in the gym, the millions of forehands hit, the way he could probably, with all his training, hit a 135 mph serve on a dime — with his eyes closed.

And he’d think, he’d obsess, about the 4+ hours he’d stood on the court with this man, this great Serbian champion, on three separate occasions, how each time his physical and mental faculties had carried him to the brink of success, had earned him so many chances to seize the initiative and close Djok out, the finish line very much in sight, but, at each moment, he’d some how managed to blow it all.

These are not fun thoughts. And you can imagine Stanislas reliving them again and again, on some Eurorail train, staring aimlessly out the window at snow-capped peaks off in the distance, but unable to escape those three “moments” in Melbourne, Flushing Meadows, and, then, again, in Melbourne, where he’d had his chance to succeed or fail. And he’d failed.

You can imagine him, on that same train, staring out that window, thinking, justifiably, that nothing he could do in the future could ever allow to feel he’d succeeded in the moments that truly mattered in his life, and that the only way he’d ever be able to do that would be not only to un-retire from tennis and improbably climb back to the top of the rankings, but for Djokovic, then, too, an aging geezer in pro tennis years, to do the same, and for them to yet again go deep into the fifth set at a major, for him (Stani) to again feel those same doubts, and for him to, somehow, this time, push them aside and get over the line. You can imagine him, perhaps casting his gaze away from those snow-capped peaks to some expressionless passenger sitting across from him, thinking that his whole life had been a failure.

The fact that Stanislas Wawrinka will not have to have those thoughts gives me faith in the universe.

The fact that, on his third attempt to cross into the void of self-fulfillment, he finally got it done, gives me faith in so many good things, those things we all want to believe in: that practice can pay off, that good guys can win, that past demons can become present angels. 

This is to say nothing bad about Novak Djokovic, a great person, a great champion. It is simply to say that, everyone deserves a chance to meet their moment. And, even if he goes out and fails to win a single game against Berdych in their Australian Open semi, Stani will have faced his moment once again.

And, this time, finally, he will have met it.


2 Responses to “Stani the Mani Meets His Moment”


  1. Fed and Rafa Play for History Down Under | The Meeting Place - January 23, 2014

    […] match-up at the Australian Open, far more will be on the line than a trip to Sunday’s final. A lot of attention has been paid to the amazing run of Swiss second-best Stanislas Wawrinka, whose thrilling five-set quarterfinal […]

  2. Stanislas Wawrinka: The People’s Champion | The Meeting Place - January 24, 2014

    […] fellow family member, blogger, and Swiss tennis enthusiast recently wrote a great piece on Stani’s recent triumph over arch-nemesis Novak Djokovic.  In light of the […]

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