The moral bankruptcy of betting against Stan Wawrinka — and the universal hope that springs from his success (plus other musings from today’s French Open final)

8 Jun

As someone who loves but bet categorically against Stanislas Wawrinka heading into his French Open final today against Novak Djokovic, the moral bankruptcy I felt in watching the Swiss beat the Serb is almost beyond description. Lower than low. Like, really bad.

But as the fog lifts, and emotions from the match subside, I am able to draw lessons from Stan’s success, to find hope in his journey, to rejoice in the universal applicability of his path to tennis glory.

There’s much to say about today’s final, but this was, at its core, a story about patience, persistence, and believing in one’s strengths. It centres on a simple man’s unwavering belief in his own ability to succeed. Stani won because he knows his skills, practices to improve them, and draws on them when things get tight.

All of us can — and should — take heart in Wawrinka’s triumph.

Let’s start with what happened on court.

From a strategic, tactical, and technical perspective, today’s affair was relatively straightforward. For the better part of four sets, Stani dictated play from the baseline, maintained a high first-serve percentage, and executed big shots when it mattered most. Employing the full range of his shotmaking arsenal, Stan used a barrage of explosive ground strokes to keep Djok on his back foot, pinning him well behind the baseline and running the Serb from end to end. Wawrinka’s unending battery also prevented Djokovic from executing the offense-to-defense transition that has proven the calling card of his rise to the top.

But in this brilliance, we saw nothing new from the Swiss.

Rather than an other worldly departure from, or some deity-assisted levitation above, his usual game, Stani’s performance today was the near-perfect execution of precisely that game.

Stan did Stan. Full stop.

The 2014 Australian Open champion played within himself and produced the clean, effective tennis of which he has repeatedly proven capable. Sure, there were a few shots that had folks picking their collective jaws up off the floor (like this around-the-net, down-the-line screamer from somewhere near the first row (at 2:35 in the vid). But, basically, Stan did what he always does, particularly against the top players. The game plan was simple: Bludgeon every ball off your forehand and backhand wings, hit the crap out of your first serve, and mix in a little net play every now and then. The formula wasn’t nuanced. But it was successful. To the extent there’s pure Stan, this was it.

The simplicity of Stani’s game plan in today’s final mirrors the approach he’s turned to throughout his tennis career.

It runs as follows. Identify your strengths. Hone them thru practice. Test your strengths in competition. Practice more. Test again. Do not stray from the path, especially in big matches and during tight moments. Even when you fail.

In some of the brilliant shot-making we saw from Stani on Philippe Chatrier, one could almost imagine Wawrinka ripping forehand after forehand on a practice court somewhere in Lausanne, his cherubic physiognomy glistening softly in the Swiss summer sun, with Swedish coach Magnus Norman nodding approvingly from the other side of the net.

Stani’s road to greatness is heartening in its universality, uplifting in its scope. He puts in work.

The horizontalism of practice à failure à practice à improvement à success is something of which we as humans are all capable. It’s a formula as relevant for barristas as it is for ball-strikers, as useful in Silicon Valley as it is on the serve-and-volley, as applicable to counterterrorism as it is to counter-punching.

Patrick (my brother, the better half of the Balke Bros enterprise) has written eloquently about Stani representing “the people’s champion.” I didn’t fully grasp what he meant until today, as I sat transfixed, watching the Swiss bludgeon backhand after backhand with clinical precision and unflappable confidence. Setting to one side his affinity for the proletariat, Stani’s people-ism runs much deeper.

In tennis, as in any sport, we expect our heroes to rise to another level when everything’s on the line. We don’t know how they’ll do it, but we know that they will. The source of this ascension is unknowable, as if the greats can, on command, somehow conjure an intangible quality that the rest of us don’t, and will never, have.

But, in Stani, there’s something different. On the biggest points, he goes for his shots and tries to win, rather than taking his foot off the gas and hoping his opponents will lose. When he succeeds, there’s nothing magic in that success, no untraceable quality we so routinely associate with elite athletes. This isn’t MJ crossing over Russell, Chastain putting the penalty kick in the back of the net, or Brady finding a seam for which no one else – including god – would even look.

Stani trusts the strokes he’s honed thru millions of reps on the practice court, and goes for it come crunch time. This doesn’t always work. But sometimes – it does.

I’ll never hit a 140mph serve, and you will never have Stani’s backhand. But the process that led to that great serve, to that explosive forehand, is endlessly replicable, by us, the people. The context doesn’t matter. What matters is that, in Stan Wawrinka, humanity has a reproducible model for achieving greatness.

We can all find hope in that – even the morally bankrupt among us who bet against him.

Stani the Mani, I shan’t doubt you again, even as I know you’d forgive me for doing so.


Other musings from the match

Stani’s game is well-suited for high-pressure matches. One of the biggest problems players face when they step onto the court in big matches is nerves. Nerves lead you to slow down your strokes and abandon the very game plans that helped you advance in the first place. But not with Stani. The Swiss’ whole game is predicated around the strategy of controlling matches. And the way he seeks to control matches is by hitting the shit out of almost every ball. While this tactic sometimes fails spectacularly, it invariably allows him to “blast thru” his nerves and settle into matches. The success doesn’t always follow, but the nerves invariable scurry. That helped Stan out there today against Djok, for sure.

The Swiss did well to pick up on Djokovic’s played out drop-shot game. This wasn’t a central dynamic of the match, but there seems to exist some odd correlation between the success rate of Djok’s drop-shot game and his overall confidence. At some point early in the second set, Stan became visibly frustrated by how many times he’d been punked by the dropper. From that moment on, he began to anticipate these shots with greater efficacy, moving in at the first sign of the Serb’s little tickler, and getting to the ball with enough time to hit an offensive shot. Indeed, Stan clinched a key break in the third by spotting that the dropper was coming and moving into the court in time to hit a routine cross-court forehand winner to seize the advantage. This process of learning and adaption represents a hallmark trait of all top-level tennis pros, including Stan.

Djok had the look of someone who was bound to lose – I was initially going to start this post with something along the lines of “Napoleon’s march into Moscow; MJ’s transition to baseball; Rand Paul’s bid for the presidency: Some bids are built to spill, failed before they start.  Thing is, I was going to use this to describe Stani’s bid to beat Djok. I thought he had no chance, that we were moving slowly, inexorably toward the zenith of Djok’s career, which, as I’ve long called, would include a French Open title and serious bid at a calendar year grand slam. Djok seems poised, seemed in a perfect place physically, mentally, emotionally. Yet, as the match progress, and Stani gained confidence with each new backhand winner, Djok looked increasingly like a broken man, like someone who sensed his fate, and hadn’t the plan, nor the will, to fight it.

Maybe marriage doesn’t work. Andy Murray joked after beating Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Master’s Series final that “marriage works,” writing these words on the ESPN camera post-match in lieu of the customary player signature. Like Murray, Djok is newly married and, also like the Scot, carried a sizable winning streak into the French Open. We’ve heard consistent talk in the press room about how the Serb’s responsibilities as a husband and father have given him a new perspective that has allowed him to take his game to new heights. Until today, that seemed utterly true. Wawrinka, meanwhile, has been testing the opposite hypothesis. In the years leading up to his victory at the 2014 Australian Open final, Stan had separated from his family to concentrate exclusively on tennis. Say what you will about the moral merit of this decision, the results spoke for themselves in terms of on-court efficacy. Then, a few weeks before the start of this year’s French, Stan and his wife, Ilham Vuilloud, announced that they had separated. And now, Sunday’s title. Some posit that elite athletes should avoid family life until their playing days are over. I’m not sure that’s the case (look at Andre and Steffi), but Stan’s now-twice a-familial success warrants discussion.

What should we look for now from Stan? Who knows?! One can imagine Stan losing in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon only to win the tournament next year, and then lose in the first round of the 2016 U.S. Open only to wrap-up the career grand slam at Flushing Meadows in 2017 at the age of 32. Everything is possible with Stan, and that’s precisely the beauty of this enigmatic man from Lausanne.


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