Stan Wawrinka, perennial Swiss number two behind Roger Federer, won the third grand slam tournament of his career and his first at the U.S. Open, taking three straight sets last night after dropping the first in a tie breaker. He beat defending champ Novak Djokovic, top seed, world number one.
And he beat him the cleanest way possible: nullifying the best service returner in today’s game with a classic all-court performance. The foundation was still Wawrinka’s brilliant one-handed backhand, but his forehand was no less impressive once he got both wings under control early in the second set. He played like a stone wall against Djokovic’s overhead smashes, answered power with power and, by the third set, had taken over dictation of most points. He changed pace, moved his opponent side to side, set up thrilling winners. He was, this time, the master.
The thrilling match capped a marvelous fortnight for the one Federer calls the Stanimal. He came from behind to beat Kei Nishikori in the semis and, earlier, held off the magnificent Juan Martin Del Potro in four close sets; in the first week he needed five to stop the rising British star Daniel Evans.
Certainly the outcome was unexpected, but no one doubts it was deserved. Djokovic, who won the Australian and French Opens this year but had an uneven summer with losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics, remains in a league of his own, notably with the absence of Roger Federer, recovering from knee surgery. Andy Murray, playing the best tennis of his life, was upset by Nishikori in the quarters, as was Nadal by a young French unknown named Lucas Pouille.
Yet the fact remains that quietly and surely, Wawrinka, at 31, winner of two previous slams at Melbourne and Roland-Garros, is at the top of his game — except when he isn’t. He is a player who can be inconsistent, not within the same match, but from tournament to tournament. At the final slam, or major, of the 2016 Tour, he was in excellent form physically, confident mentally. He knew he had as good a chance as any other to make it to the final, and as to Djokovic, who has a winning record against him, he beat him at the French Open at Roland Garros in 2015.
To take up the story of the 2016 U.S. Open where we left off a couple day ago, however, nobody beats Gael Monfils 14 times in a row. An error slipped into an earlier dispatch and we stated Novak Djokovic had won 13 straight matches against the Parisian ace as they went into the U.S. Open semifinals at Flushing Meadows, when in fact this was their thirteenth meeting.
That one too was a fine match, creative and hard-fought.
The same day, Stanislas Wawrinka, world number three, fought off a fierce charge by Japanese Floridian Kei Nishikori. As he would against Novak Djokovic, Wawrinka battled back from a first set loss to outplay and wear down his opponent. On both occasions, the other side was all but throwing shots away, not to tank but because it was out of energy. Stan, though sweat-soaked and exhausted, looked like he could play a few more sets. He was in control, saving break points, retrieving advantages, finding chances. That is, creating them.
Wawrinka’s comment after his win in the semis applied to the final. “Yeah,” he said, “I think Kei start really well the match. I think he was moving really well. He was playing really aggressive. I didn’t find any solution to put my game. He was always dictating. I was feeling uncomfortable on the court. He was coming at the net. He was charging a lot.”
So what to do? Wawrinka, with perhaps the most beautiful and powerful backhand since Don Budge, knew he had to start putting his shots on a dime — the lines, actually; and he did. He knew he had to hit high-velocity winners past Nishikori at the net, as he would have to do against Djokovic. Going to the net was tactical for Nishikori, but it was also strategic: he knew that in the conditions he did not have the stamina for long points. This was Djokovic’s calculation as well.
“I saw in the first set that he could also struggle with the heat and humidity today,” noted Wawrinka. “It was a tough battle physically, and I know if I’m make him tired he’s not going to be as fast or aggressive as was in the beginning. That was my goal, to play a little bit more aggressive.” Conditions were better on Friday night, but the same rule applied, especially in the fourth set when it became apparent that Djokovic had hurt his foot or his leg, or both. The Stanimal, a genial man off the courts, had no compassion.
After losing the tight first set in a tiebreak that was not tight at all, Wawrinka, who had been erratic and error-prone, found his strokes. And his strokes, once he has them in hand and not somewhere in his head, are among the most deadly-accurate in the sport. Wawrinka began pounding away with tremendous backhands and forehands that hit the edges of the lines. He hit without fear, controlled the pace, changed it at will. He threw Djokovic off his game, which is to control the point from the baseline and approach the net for sure killers. (He actually had more net winners than Wawrinka, who dominated in ground strokes.)
Wawrinka was relentless, repeatedly coming from behind to hold his service games or, eventually, to break his opponent’s. Several times, he came back from 0-40. He not once gave any sign of thinking he might lose this match, while Djokovic shook his head in frustration, threw up his hands, finally asked for not one but two medical timeouts in the fourth and final set.
It was an absolutely appropriate ending for an out of the ordinary Open. Maybe it’s the strange year we are living through, but with Federer out and Nadal and Murray both losing in upsets, something like this was bound to happen.
Already it had happened on the women’s side, or something close, when Kristina Pliskova beat first Venus Williams and then the best of the best on the women’s Tour, Serena Williams. The latter was expected to meet Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber in the finals, while Djokovic was expected to face Andy Murray, winner at Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics.
The women’s final did not disappoint. The young Miss Pliskova, using her deep strong forehand shot and her powerful serve with relentless abandon, appeared set to repeat her win over Miss Kerber in the finals of the Western and Southern Open at Cincinnati a few weeks ago. After losing a close first set, she broke in the second and seemed likely to carry her momentum all the way through the third. Only toward the end did the Miss Kerber, newly ranked No. 1, assert the weight of her experience, patience, and shrewd shot selection. She successfully exploited the errors of the volatile Czech and prevailed in a match both young women agreed was the match of the tournament, at least for them.
In a year full of unforeseen twists and unpredicted turns, there was something about this Open final that was just as it should be. Stan Wawrinka, the perennial second-best, got his due, and he got it fair and square and without comprising anything.
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