Stanislas Wawrinka: The People’s Champion

24 Jan

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My 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 finalization of Sunday’s championship match, I’d like to delve deeper into the crystallization of the legend of Stanislas and why no matter the odds, Stanislas is not only the manislas, but also the people’s champion.

Tennis these past few years has been dominated by a trio of all-time greats, and Andy Murray kind of/not really.  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic: three players, inhuman in their own way, demigods waltzing through the ATP tour like its an Homerian epic.  Regardless of your preferences, anyone can admit these players have reached levels of physical and tactical dominance and mastery that we can only marvel at.  Fed has long been “the maestro,” a master of precision, aggression, fluidity, and sheer style on the court.  Much has been said about Fed’s brilliance, so I say no more. (Watch and just try to resist the urge to pick up a racquet.)

But, as Sherlock had Professor Moriarty and Jerry had Newman, Federer has Nadal.  Growing up a Federer fan has a funny way of engendering sheer hatred for Nadal in every aspect of your tennis watching mentality that even seeing a reverse forehand can make you roll your eyes.  But with age (and a lot of losing) comes respect and appreciation.  Nadal is human strength, the outer limits of what physicality, blind intensity, and racquet head speed can get you.  To compare him to a bull is to flatter the bull’s strength.  His record against Federer, though severely skewed by Nadal’s dominance on clay and inconsistency at hard/grass court slams (by Roger’s standards, not normal people’s), says it all.  But so does this.  And that’s not even one of the best Rafa shots! It just shows, with his herculean strength, somewhat disconcerting intensity, and general physical and mental insanity on the court, there is literally no shot he cannot hit, every inch of the court can lead to a winner from him.  Nobody plays like him.  Nobody can.  You cannot aspire to that level.  He uses topspin like it’s going out of business.  

Which brings me to Djokovic, the initially forgotten, relegated to number three until 2011 paragon of efficiency.  Sick of the sidelines, so he locked himself in an egg and came out a champion.  Half man half elastic, he’s much like Nadal in his defense to offense transition/blurring, he can create winners with a flick of his wrist.  His chest pumping bravado and confidence can annoy people (me) as can his near constant complaining when he’s not screaming in joy/anger.  But it’s all part of who he is, a man who made himself into a force, selling himself to the nutritional and fitness devil for a stretch of dominance that backs up the confidence, a lifetime rise too compelling to discount.

In all these insane players, I see tennis immortality, the realization of years in advances in racquet technologies, fitness regimes for tennis players, and the broad evolution of the game.  Federer has embodied a perfection of the old model of finesse and aggression with a modern flavor of toughness and power.  Nadal, put simply, is a freak, I mean the title of his Aussie Open profile is Pain, not just for his injuries but to what he inflicts on opponents.  The dude’s a freak, plain and simple, and an utter spectacle to watch.  The laws of physics do not apply to him; he looks at the limitations of the human body and laughs.  Novak, too, shows a resilience of body and confidence in each match that shows he can outlast almost anyone, perhaps even Nadal, with his superior fitness and consistency.  I cannot play like these players, I cannot even try.

 

And then there is Stani.

 

Forever in Fed’s shadow, known as the stand-in for Fed’s gold medal run for so long, an anomaly whose backhand is better than his forehand, a man whose path to the top ten took seven years, then almost five after that, Stanilas Wawrinka has been a bit of an esoteric figure at the fringes of the mainstream tennis watcher’s scope.  His backhand was always a source of awe, for those who knew of Stanislas, but nothing else drew attention.  He was lingering in tennis no-man’s land, doing enough to maintain a living, but never cracking the top twenty, and doing so only fleetingly.   That backhand though, if only, we thought, he could overcome his considerable deficiencies and make a run.  To see that backhand in primetime on Sundays across the world against the world’s best.  What was in doubt was whether that dream was Stani’s dream, and whether his ceiling was as hard and low as it seemed.

This is a man who even in gaining acclaim, gained it through losses to Djokovic, five set heartbreakers in Melbourne and Flushing Meadows that tested the confidence of his most ardent acolytes.  Matches he had ample opportunity to win, where he had pieced together the formula to victory, only to let passive rallying supplant his aggression and drive.  More fundamentally, Stani is a mani who bends his knees perhaps the least amount humanly possible to still hit a tennis serve, has a face dominated by adolescent scruff and acne scars, and whose struggles with mental toughness and intensity signal a hard ceiling for someone who can only aspire to overachieving.  He uses Yonex for Christ’s sake.  Regardless of talent, he doesn’t look or feel like the rest of the elite.  Even Tomas Berdych looks the part.  

 A professional athlete though he is, and he has levels of talent and strength us normal people can barely imagine, he embodies the struggles we all share.  He fails, he gets nervous, he loses when he should win.  He hits beautiful shot after beautiful shot only to retreat back to the baseline, settling for long rallies he cannot win against Nole or Rafa.  He’s got the talent, the shots, and a nagging inability to realize what they are or when to use them.  He is no freak of nature, at 6 even 174 lbs, he’s more or less normal.  His frame’s main distinction is the bizarre product of a one hander, especially one as powerful as his: a severe imbalance in arm sizes. Point being, nobody’s asking Stanislas to do topless photo shoots with Bar Rafaeli. (Sorry Stani, it’s true).

Yet it is in these weaknesses, and on that left arm that lies the secret to Stani’s emergence, and the commonality between all us real people, strivers, dreamers not endowed with preternatural talents or strength and Stanislas Wawrinka: this tattoo. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” For those of you not familiar with modernism, depression, or Ireland, this is a quote by Samuel Beckett, Irish expatriate playwright and poet, and early 20th Century Ted Danson.  It is in more ways than one a perfect quote for Stani.  Beckett, to an extent, lived initially in an inopportune time, overshadowed by the coincidence of living and working with one of the greatest Irish writer’s of all time, James Joyce.  And much like Stanislas aided Fed’s quest for gold in Beijing, Beckett was instrumental in Joyce’s last work, Finnegan’s Wake.  But the greats fade, either due to age or alcoholism, it is a fact of life.  Beckett stepped up and produced a body of work as masterful and depressing as Stani’s prior record in slams, so too has Stani stepped up to take the reins.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.  From a one shot pony dangling off of Fed’s considerable coattails, Stani strove for greatness.  He could not call upon his unique physical comparative advantages or his ingenious shot-making capability.  He had a backhand and five years to turn it into a slam.  Life is about priorities, and right or wrong, we choose where our priorities lay.  Stani chose tennis, and left his family.  Like actually left his family

Maybe we cannot identify with this, maybe we have some predilection to the comforts of home over the court.  But who among us cannot identify with someone realizing his passion, acknowledging his mortality and his fleeting window, and dropping everything to pursue it.  Come what may.  Stani is Ben Braddock, and his life since has been the last scene of The Graduate.  His heartbreaking losses were only possible because of this dedication which has payed enormous dividends, including a sneaky good serve, a reliable and weapons grade forehand, and much, much underrated variety in his game.  He is baseline heavy, he is passive at times, but these are all habits, we have them, he has them, he strives, he fails, he picks himself up again, and he rattles off impressive win after impressive win.  Semifinals in Australia, New York, and London 13. 9 Top Ten Victories.  An established seat among the top eight that only solidifies with each win over sorry placeholders like Murray (that’s right), Berdych, and Gasquet.  He failed, plenty.  Squandered chances against Novak, first round exit from Wimbledon, But the story has not been of regression nor of idle dwelling on failures, but of steady, unyielding improvement.  

With each loss, with each failure, he builds steam, he learns, he fails better.  The closer he gets, the less impossible his rise begins and the more inevitable.  He has to break through, the difference between winning and losing at the point he has brought Nole to time and again is negligible.   Every failure has been a precursor to future success.  And boom.  All those years of failure, toiling to climb without knowing if the top was ever to be visible, let alone attainable, coming to fruition in a victory that embodied all these failures as much as the improvements he has made.  Down goes Djoko, three-time defending Aussie king and card-carrying Stani-killer.  Ever tried. Ever failed.  No matter.  Try Again.

Is this not the way we all strive to be? The trio I detailed earlier, their victories are just determined by inches and mere psychological/physical anomalies of the day, it is whoever is most playing their game that day, there is barely room for improvement, merely room for more consistently creating the conditions for the opponent to slip.  I cannot, we cannot identify with such perfection.  Instead, I turn to Stanislas, whose weaknesses physical, personal, and mental expose themselves with nearly every match, win, lose or draw, but are only overshadowed by his undeterred march toward greatness.  He may lose to Rafa, he may never win a match again, but the road from Beijing to the finals at Melbourne, the blood, sweat, and backhands it has asked of him, the enormous amount of failure he has endured, bear lessons for us all.  You fall down, you get back up the next day.  Your passion is your destiny.  You try, you fail, you try again, you fail again, you fail better, and you get back up and try again.  

His passion for the game must resonate with all who love tennis.  His resilience in the face of failure is a story we can all rally to.  Turning imperfection into glory is what makes Stanislas a champion.  The people’s champion.  Here’s to failure, one handers, and tennis.

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