Previewing Stanislas-Rafa: Solving the Spanish Riddle

25 Jan

Stanislas Wawrinka, the people’s champion, will have to play the match of his life to trip-up Rafael Nadal when the two square-off in their Australian Open final Sunday night in Melbourne.

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Stani is coming off a riveting four-set semifinal win over Czeck strong-man Tomas Berdych, and an even more riveting five-set triumph over world number two and long-time nemesis Novak Djokovic in the quarters.

Rafa, on the other hand, has been absolutely bludgeoning opponents, as all-time great and 17-time major champion Roger Federer found out in his highly anticipated, but ultimately exceedingly routine, three-set loss to Nadal in the tournament’s final four.

In fact, the only person who came close to challenging Nadal was Bulgarian 22-year-old phenom Grigor Dimitrov, also known as “Baby Fed,” who had a golden opportunity to take a two sets to one lead over Rafa, but who, like his elder Swiss namesake, eventually got the short end of the stick against the bull from Manorca.

A lot is riding on Sunday’s final.

A win from Stanislas would cap his dream run Down Under with a first major title, and seemingly vindicate his decision to leave his wife and small child three years prior to focus exclusively on tennis. A win from Rafa, on the other hand, would result in him lodging his 14th major victory and nudging ahead of Pete Sampras into second-place on the all-time list, a mere three titles short of Federer’s record total.

These are the stakes.

Here are the big questions as we head toward tomorrow’s match-up.

Does Stani have a chance to beat Rafa? If so, how can he do it? If not, is Rafa on a trajectory to surpass Fed’s major mark like really, really soon?

The answers are, respectively, “yes”, “divine intervention,” and “probably.”

Let’s take them in turn.

On the “Can he do it?” question, here you go: Rafa seems immortal, but he is human and, by extension, vulnerable. Courtesy of Swedish behemoth Robin Soderling, we saw, in the round of 16 at the 2009 French Open, the recipe for beating Rafa: Swing hard, and hope all your shots go in. From point one to point whatever, Soderling tried to hit as big as he possibly could, and enough shots went in that, despite absurd rebuttals and Rafa’s ceaseless desire to win and retain his French Open crown, the Spaniard suffered, in four long sets, his lone, shocking defeat at Roland Garros. Is it possible for Stani the Mani to repeat this unlikely feat? Yes, it is. But it’s about as likely as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga sacrificing the highlight reel in favor of good, boring, disciplined tennis (sorry: separate issue, separate issue).

So, what does Stani need to do to win?

First and foremost, stay aggressive from the baseline. Stani needs to avoid, at all costs, long, grinding rallies with Nadal. He needs to force the issue from the first ball. The people’s champ is a big hitter. He does best when he’s crushing, keeping his opponents on the run and pinned to the baseline. That’s what he did against Djoker and, in the end, the pressure and fatigue induced by Wawrinka’s unceasing aggression proved just enough to slip past the feisty Serb.

Second, keep that first-serve percentage up. Stani needs to win easy service games, so he can focus on pressuring Rafa during his (Rafa’s) serve and elicit precious breaks. You hold serve easily by taking control of points early and getting yourself into an offensive position. This is particularly important against Rafa, who feasts on second serves: At one point in his match against Fed, it looked like Nadal was basically treating them like approach shots. A steady diet of second serves would allow Rafa to neutralize Stani’s aggressive baseline attack, which is the most threatening part of the Swiss’s game and his best chance to win Sunday’s final.

Third, don’t be afraid of the net. Wawrinka has surprisingly deft touch at net. He needs to use it against Nadal. Sure, if you give Rafa a target, you’re often toast. But if you sit back and let him find his groove, you’re soggy toast. And that’s bad toast, baby. Bad toast.

Fourth and foremost, to win, Stani needs divine intervention. He needs to pray to Buddha, Jesus, Vishnu, or Allah. Kiss his mother. Rub some rabbit ears. Call a Rabbi. See a sage. Employ whatever religion you got! Because this is going to be a hard match for you, Stani.

If the heavens don’t open, and Rafa runs away with this 14th major title on the hard-court in Melbourne, what might it mean for the Spaniard’s pursuit of Roger Federer’s all-time major mark?

I actually think it might accelerate that pursuit quite a bit. After storming thru the Aussie Open, what would stop Rafa from plowing thru the rest of the season and tying Fed’s record by securing the first calendar year grand slam since Rod Laver in 1967? Unfortunately for Federer fans, the reasons are frighteningly non-compelling.

But that’s an issue we’ll address if/when we come to it.

For now, enjoy Sunday’s final!

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