He Stan(d)s Here As His Own Man
You should never have to feel pressured to tell somebody else that you are your own person.
So much of the written and theatrical arts — television, plays, movies, books — have always dealt with the notion of the double life, the tension between the outward identity and the true inner self. One of Doots’s and my favorite shows, Mad Men, is the foremost contemporary example of a television program which explores this concept. Don Draper might not succeed in being his best and truest self, the one which is comfortable enough to strip away the Madison Avenue monster who has to exhibit power, control, and virile swagger. Don knows that he should be a more grounded person, the one which, in the powerful season six finale, took Sally and Bobby to the whorehouse where he grew up. However, he doesn’t yet know how to become that person. He doesn’t know how to get where he needs to go.
If Don Draper was to tell Megan or Betty in tonight’s episode, “I am now the person I know I need to become,” neither his wife nor his ex-wife would take him seriously. The same would be the case for any viewer. Don can’t tell others he’s changed. He needs to show he’s changed, and that will be the big drama of Mad Men’s final season.
In real life — not a fictional television program — human beings can’t testify to their most meaningful transformations in mere words. Al Gore used his nomination speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles to tell the American electorate, “I stand here tonight as my own man.” The American public, despite a period of relative economic prosperity after Bill Clinton’s two terms, thought so little of Gore’s authenticity that it voted George W. Bush as president. You don’t tell others you’ve changed. You prove it with your actions.
This is why sports are so great, oui?
Stanislas Wawrinka has spent so much of his career in the shadows of Roger Federer. If you’re reading this piece, this is a point which needs absolutely no elaboration whatsoever… so I won’t bore you with any kind of recap.
Let’s deal with the very recent past: Wawrinka did win his first major championship earlier this year in Melbourne, Australia, but he then wobbled in both Indian Wells and Miami, feeling the pressure of having to justify his meteoric rise in the rankings and the larger tennis community. He struggled with the transition that is so difficult for just about any tennis player who ascends to the top tier of the sport. Everyone tries to gun you down. Media scrutiny intensifies. You become the focus of the action in the arena, not the sideshow or the cute, cuddly underdog. This is not something one can automatically respond to with perfect emotional equilibrium.
Wawrinka’s stumbles in the United States in March became something much worse in early April. The reigning Australian Open champion played poorly enough to be a first-round loser at a major tournament — yes, he was that bad if not worse — in the Davis Cup quarterfinals. Wawrinka, playing for Switzerland against Kazakhstan, managed to collect himself long enough to battle through a win against Mikhail Kukushkin that kept the Swiss alive in the best-of-five tie. However, if this Federer guy hadn’t exhibited complete command in his two singles matches, Switzerland would not have advanced to the Davis Cup semifinals.
It’s worth hanging onto that Davis Cup experience for just a moment, because it represented one more instance in which Federer overshadowed Wawrinka. It was only one weekend, true enough, but as the Monte Carlo Masters arrived on the calendar, it had become reasonable — through the prism of recent evidence — to claim that Federer had once again surpassed Wawrinka as Switzerland’s number one tennis player. Even though Wawrinka flourished in the process of reaching Sunday’s Monte Carlo final, his countryman — the one with 17 major titles and 50 Masters semifinal appearances, among other distinctions — had just defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic on consecutive days. An informal survey of tennis pundits and commentators before Sunday’s match would have established Federer as the favorite.
Yes, Wawrinka had won a major title.
Yes, he had risen to No. 1 in Switzerland and No. 3 in the world.
Yes, he had beaten Djokovic in a five-set match at a major, and he made his first major semifinal at the U.S. Open last September.
Yet, there was something Wawrinka had not done since his tennis resurrection began: He had not yet beaten Federer head-to-head over the past 16 months. On Easter Sunday — a day made for resurrections — Wawrinka had a chance to put a number of old, persistent narratives in the tomb while walking into the new life of a career that could stand completely on its own, free forever from Federer’s shadow.
Wawrinka didn’t have to tell Federer or the world that he was his own man. The beauty of sports — especially the mano-a-mano theater of singles tennis — lies in the reality that competitors get to prove themselves on the merits. Wawrinka had a chance to show that he was his own man in tennis terms. Federer’s quest for an elusive Monte Carlo title was the most tangible achievement on the line in this match, but the more powerful and intriguing human story of the Monte Carlo final was Wawrinka’s quest for permanent, unquestioned independence as a tennis star — within and beyond Switzerland.
What we saw in one of tennis’s most spectacular settings proved to be a perfect example-cum-announcement of the extent to which Wawrinka has grown as a competitor.
Wawrinka felt the weight of the occasion — and his opponent across the net — in an error-strewn first set. Coach Magnus Norman’s charge pulled the trigger much too quickly on his forehand, spraying the ball in hard-hitting rallies that were entertaining and disappointing at the same time. When Wawrinka took a 2-0 lead in the second set but immediately got broken back at love, it was not only reasonable, but logical, to think that in a movie seen many times before, Stan would not stick to the plan. The Australian Open champion appeared ready to lose the second set, 7-5 or in a tiebreaker, mirroring past sets that slipped away against not only Federer, but also the likes of Nadal and Djokovic. When the second set did work its way to a tiebreaker, the smart money suggested that Federer would win.
Stanislas Wawrinka arrived at that most perilous intersection between opportunity and paralysis. He had a chance to show that he was his own man… or to show that Federer’s mere presence on the other side of the court still overwhelmed him in a situation of consequence.
In prior years, Wawrinka had lost to Federer at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros. He would lose a set he could have won, and afterward, he’d disintegrate into a player who didn’t bother hiding how mentally beaten he actually was. Federer would console him at net when the match ended, but the psychological damage took root and lingered more than it needed to. Athletes have to forget their failures very quickly, and this was one of the foremost things Wawrinka had not learned to do until Magnus Norman came along.
When the second-set tiebreaker arrived, Wawrinka came face to face with the kind of moment that had destroyed him in the past… and the kind of moment Federer has used to forge some of his greatest triumphs. The tiebreaker is where Federer won the 2007 and 2009 Wimbledon finals. This part of tennis is a crapshoot, but it’s where the great players usually affirm their prowess in “big-point” situations, and few have ever been better-er than Federer. The enormity of the challenge Wawrinka had to meet cannot be overstated.
It’s true that Federer was quite nervous at the start of that second-set breaker, wanting so badly (too badly, in retrospect) to bag that first Monte Carlo title. However, Wawrinka had to be solid precisely when Federer gave him leverage — past Fedrinka matches, after all, often saw Federer give his friend Stanley an opening… only for Wawrinka to refuse to take it. The Swiss No. 1’s evolution as an elite player, which needed to manifest itself against Federer (and Federer’s aura on court), had to include one element in particular: the ability to capitalize on spotty play from the 17-time major champion.
Stan did just that in the process of taking a 4-1 lead.
Federer was not through in challenging his pal, though. The Swiss No. 2 then stabilized, playing four excellent service points to push the tiebreaker to 6-5. Wawrinka had done a lot of good work in that tiebreaker, but if he lost that one 6-5 point with a mini-break lead, he would have stood two points from defeat, and that’s when a lot of old demons could have rushed back to the forefront of his consciousness.
Federer was down 6-3 in this tiebreaker. You might recall another tiebreaker in which Fed trailed, 6-3 — in 2009 at Wimbledon against Andy Roddick. (It was even 6-2, but this does not make the 6-3 claim any less factual.) Federer held his two service points at 3-6, forcing Roddick to win one point on serve at 6-5. When Roddick lost that point, Federer found the escape hatch and the bridge to the fifth set, when his legs outlasted Roddick’s and forged a piece of tennis history. Great players won’t always win an isolated 6-5 service point in a tiebreaker, but this was a time and a match when Wawrinka needed to win it… at least if he was going to show with his actions that he could stand as his own man.
Sure enough, Wawrinka found a strong flat serve to the wide corner of the service box from the ad court, and the second set was his. In a moment of truth, a player who had struggled to surmount the obstacle of his own mind — not to mention the intimidating presence of a tennis immortal who was his friend and countryman — put a large part of his past to rest.
In the third set, Wawrinka — who not only logged a lot less court time during the week in Monte Carlo, but also played multiple 1:40 p.m. (local time) matches while Federer was slotted into mid- or late-afternoon windows — had the much fresher legs to supplement his belief. Yes, Federer fell flat in the decider, but a man who is going to be 33 years old in August did not figure to be the more invigorated player in a third set… not after his protracted quarterfinal war with Tsonga and his mentally demanding semifinal against Djokovic. The second-set tiebreaker was Sunday’s defining sequence, and in that stretch of 12 points, Stanislas Wawrinka didn’t make a single meaningful misstep.
You could choose to talk about this match from Federer’s perspective. The father of two — who is about to welcome a third child into his and Mirka’s household — lost conviction and clarity on his groundstrokes. The match ceased to be on his racquet when Wawrinka’s weightier shots became more consistent and calibrated, unlike the first set. Yet, for all the things Federer failed to do, we come back to the original point of this piece (and Sunday’s match):
This was always going to be a measurement of Stanislas Wawrinka’s evolution more than anything else. Was Stan ready to become his own man, to show something that could not be conveyed in hollow words and had to be expressed in both his game and his mental toughness?
The powerful, authoritative nature of Wawrinka’s “YES!” is what the tennis community should take away from today. Neither Federer nor the match as a whole deserved to be seen as anything better than average, but amidst a lot of ho-hum tennis, Wawrinka was legitimately great in this encounter’s defining stages, the second-set breaker and the start of the third set.
Federer certainly encouraged, comforted and challenged him over the years. Norman, as a coach, has certainly transformed the way Wawrinka thinks about and believes in his abilities as a competitor. Yet, when you walk on the court as a tennis player, you remain fundamentally alone. It’s part of the beauty, fragility and power of the sport that tests the human person’s mind-body dualism at a very high level.
Stanislas Wawrinka drew from other resources and perspectives as his career moved along. Yet, no one but Stan The Man could show — to himself, to Federer, to his nation, to his fellow pros, and to the world — that he had become a tennis man in full. Last year’s loss to Djokovic in the 12-10 five-setter marked a first step along the path to greatness. The U.S. Open semifinal represented the second huge step. The Australian Open championship was in many ways the affirming and supremely validating moment that had eluded him for so long.
On Sunday in Monte Carlo, though, Wawrinka needed to show that he would no longer crumble under the weight of facing his — and his country’s — revered tennis icon. No, losing to Federer would not have made any of Wawrinka’s prior achievements any less valuable or meaningful. However, a loss would have enabled the press to continue to ask all sorts of questions about the psychological effect Federer has on Stan’s tennis. If nothing else, Wawrinka needed to win this match for more than a Masters title and its accompanying rewards (a fatter paycheck, added race points, and 400 extra rankings points). Stan needed to win this for himself, for all the times when he’d win a tournament and would be asked about Federer this, Federer that, Federer here, and Federer over there.
It’s not as though the press was justified in asking Wawrinka all sorts of Federer questions, especially in moments that Stan The Man deserved to celebrate for his own sake and on his own terms. Those questions were not thoughtful then, and they’re not thoughtful today. Now that he’s beaten Federer in a championship match, though, it should be a lot easier for journalists to remove the Federer narrative from Stanislas Wawrinka’s career… at least when Davis Cup and the Olympics are not involved.
Why should Wawrinka no longer have to field an endless series of questions about a separate Swiss tennis player?
Because he showed in Monte Carlo that he can beat Roger Federer when it matters… and because he’s simply a better tennis player than the Fed at this stage in the two men’s careers.
Stan was The Man before he took the court in the Monte Carlo final, or at least, it was right and appropriate to believe as much.
What’s different now? We no longer need to believe, as though someone has to tell us through spoken words that things are different. No, we don’t need to be convinced by means of speeches or sermons.
We know. We know because we’ve seen cold, hard evidence on the tennis rectangle and a dusty sheet of red clay where a new Swiss Master reigns on his own.