Tennis has become accustomed to Swiss players battling through draws to make major finals. The era of Roger Federer came hot on the heels of the best years of Martina Hingis, and the era came to stay. Federer became a national icon, arguably the most recognizable face not only of tennis but also of Switzerland itself. As a small country otherwise known for cheese, chocolate, watches and global banking, the Swiss take great pride in their sporting icons — especially those who embody the local ideals of high quality, good humor and humility. Federer ticks at least two of those boxes.
It is, therefore, a challenge to be a good Swiss tennis player in the shadow of a national hero. While Federer — who hails from the much larger German sector of the country — was bringing home Grand Slam trophies, Stanislas Wawrinka — born in Lausanne, a small city on the shores of Lake Geneva in French-speaking Switzerland — was battling to reach quarter- or semifinals at best. Wawrinka was appreciated and well-liked, but not lauded in the way his far more successful compatriot was.
The problem for Wawrinka was that the Federer era was not just the Federer era: the rise of Rafael Nadal followed by the arrivals of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have prevented players outside of that circle a real chance of success for so long that a whole generation — Wawrinka’s generation — watched their opportunity for sporting glory slip away. Within that generation are great talents: Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Gael Monfils, David Ferrer…the list could go on. Many of these players are still ranked among the highest in the sport, but have yet to take a step up in their career. They remain what they have always been: brilliant, talented, dangerous runners-up.
Among this group, Wawrinka is the only one who has been able to capitalize on the slow decline we are witnessing among the Big Four. Of course, at present, Djokovic, Federer and Murray still sit atop the rankings, but their form can dip now more than before. Weaknesses have shown, injuries and illness have played a role, and even just plain fatigue from all their magnificent efforts. At 30 years old, it would be understandable for Wawrinka to leave the big pushes to the younger talents appearing on the scene — but this he has not done.
In 2014, against everyone’s expectations, Wawrinka fought for and won the Australian Open. It was his first Grand Slam trophy and to win it, he defeated No. 2 seed Djokovic in the quarter-finals, Tomas Berdych in the semi-finals, and No. 1 seed Nadal in the final.
Wawrinka won it the hard way: no man had defeated both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to win a slam since Roland Garros in 1993.
Wawrinka, much like many in his generation, always had the game to take him to Grand Slam glory. His one-handed backhand, an increasingly rare sight on the tennis courts, is one of the most formidable shots in the game; he is able to create incredible power and accuracy from this wing by blasting the ball while maintaining finesse. His forehand, once more a liability, has increased in power greatly — something that was evidenced with his recent win over Nadal on the clay of Rome. Wawrinka pummeled the ball on this wing, taking advantage of Nadal’s positioning far behind the baseline.
A doubles gold medalist in the Beijing Olympics, Wawrinka is also able to approach the net and close out points with relative comfort. His net instincts and speed to reach fast incoming balls are good, while not as developed as his powerful baseline game.
It was his mind that was always the problem — unsurprising in the tennis environment he has competed in. If their is a plague in modern men’s tennis below the Big Four, it is lack of belief. It is a plague that the Big Four have nurtured, much to their credit, but one which is slowly dying out. Wawrinka appears to have conquered this faster than his fellow competitors, which is why he stands out as the leader of what Marin Cilic described as “the second wave.”
If 2014 hadn’t already been success enough, Wawrinka was part of Switzerland’s winning Davis Cup team alongside Federer. Although Federer was certainly the marquee name in the competition, the final against France saw Wawrinka step up as his team’s most valuable asset. Switzerland won 3-1, with each Swiss man winning a singles rubber and sharing the essential doubles victory. While Federer’s game was below par (good enough when you’re Roger Federer, however), Wawrinka stepped up to the plate and owned his position in the team.
Wawrinka may not be the same class of player as Federer, a fact he would be quick to point out himself when asked, but he will end his career with at least one Grand Slam title, an Olympic gold medal, and a Davis Cup victory.
Although now appreciated by his nation as a whole, it is in the French-speaking “Swiss Riviera” of Lake Geneva where you are more likely to see Wawrinka’s face adorning sponsorship boards and marketing materials than Federer’s. His home town, and the neighboring region, consider him a hero for his great efforts to mark his place in Swiss tennis history. Similarly, tennis fans love Wawrinka not because he is a candidate for the greatest who ever played the game, but because he is surely a candidate for the best challenger of his generation.
Where others have lost hope, Wawrinka has built and continues to build an enviable career. To build success in the harshest of landscapes is the very spirit of sport. For that, Wawrinka should be applauded.