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TTI Talks: Stan the Superman?

Much has been made of Stanislas Wawrinka capturing his second Slam title over the last 48 hours — and rightfully so. The Swiss beat World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in emphatic fashion to cap an incredible reversal in fortunes at the Bois De Boulogne, having lost in the first round just one year ago.

Ever since pushing the Serb to a long, high-quality five-setter at the 2013 Australian Open, the veteran has become a major force at big tournaments. Sometimes he’s hit his way through a draw — other times he has imploded. But his Coup in Paris has people wondering: How will this affect Wawrinka? What does it mean for men’s tennis? Does it have to mean anything? David Kane and René Denfeld discuss Wawrinka’s blockbuster run and the reactions.

René Denfeld: Hands up if you picked Stan Wawrinka to make an early exit at the French Open this year! Because I’m certainly guilty on that front. After his Rotterdam title in February, the Swiss’ season had been lukewarm at best — excluding Rome, Wawrinka didn’t win back-to-back matches during the clay court season and suffered a number of painful defeats.

David Kane: Two words: Federico Delbonis. On a Tour where the shortlist for any given Grand Slam tournament is already microscopic, Wawrinka seemed like a safe bet to stick to the status quo. At best, the quarterfinal win over Federer seemed like a peak, hardly a performance the Swiss sir has proven capable of duplicating.

So where did that final come from? Surely, there was no transcendent tennis from Djokovic, but with the way Wawrinka can play at his best, the Serb saw the match ripped from his hands for much of the final three sets. What had you made of his tournament heading into the final, and what exactly made the difference for Wawrinka on Sunday?

RD: After he made it through the initial stages of the tournament — overcoming a third set hiccup against Dusan Lajovic in the second round — Wawrinka began to roll. The 2014 Australian Open champion was already thumping the ball against Steve Johnson and on the rainy middle Sunday, he hit through Gilles Simon with ease.

To me, it wasn’t entirely surprising to see Wawrinka play the way he did against Federer and Djokovic — he has done it on several occasions over the course of the last two and a half years. But the way he strung those wins together, accessing his A+ game for large patches of the quarterfinals and finals, was immensely impressive. The margins were slim in the opening set of the Djokovic match, but after clinching the second set, Wawrinka ticked up a gear whenever Djokovic tried to wrest control.

DK: It had to be a tremendous mental hurdle for the Swiss star, as well. The title win in Melbourne had the feel of an accidental coronation, at the time — especially when presumptive champion Rafael Nadal seized with a hitherto unseen back injury. Having outgutted a Djokovic in search of his fourth straight Australian Open title, Wawrinka was certainly a deserving winner. But the veteran seemed altogether sheepish in victory, all but poised for a Bartoliesque Best Day Ever.

It was therefore quite surprising to see Wawrinka take out the top two seeds to win a Slam — something only the Swiss had done since 1993 to win the Australian Open — for the second time in just over a year. One Big 4 win on the men’s side is usually more than enough for the Smaller 6, but a cursory glance at recent results reveal that it also tends to be just as titleworthy an effort for the former. Just one from each of Federer’s, Nadal’s, and Djokovic’s Grand Slam titles since the 2012 Australian Open have required the champion to defeat two of his own. In that context, we’re seeing Stan Wawrinka do something all the more superhuman.

So why, then, are some inferring this result to mean that the Big 4 are suddenly susceptible to a slew of slobs? Can any bum playing his best knock out the big guys these days?

RD: Surely you mean a dadbod-having pajama dude from Home Depot, right?

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In many ways some people appear to be hanging on to the “Big 4” much like viewers clung on to the last three seasons of “Friends.” It’s a format that seems like it has run its course, but familiarity forces us to stick with it.

Three of the last six major tournaments have been won by Wawrinka and Cilic (there’s your real Bartoli-esque Best Week Ever scenario, Mr. Kane — mind, as a result he’ll probably win Wimbledon just to spite me). If that doesn’t signify that we’re in some form of a transitional phase, then I don’t know what could. In no way am I trying to discredit Federer, Nadal or Murray here, but the recent dominant force when it comes to final weekend appearances has been Djokovic, and Djokovic alone.

In many scenarios the Serb remains the person to beat, but it’s not as impossible a task. Last year’s results were already pointing towards that direction, making this year’s French Open much more like confirmation rather than revelation — regardless of how often people shout “Curveball!” when it comes to Wawrinka’s victory. Other people are winning majors, and it will keep happening in future years. Get used to it now.

DK: While the Big 4 may not be as impenetrable as they were a few years ago, I’m less inclined to say that the construct is gone for good. Health issues have led to inconsistencies — first to Murray and now Nadal feels like the “odd one out.” With Federer older and on his weakest surface, the French Open suddenly became the ideal place for someone fresh to sweep a Grand Slam fortnight.

I’m not sure how much longer this window will be open for most. Murray is back the rise, having fully recovered from his injuries and playing with renewed confidence. Nadal has looked below his best all year, but I believe that the early defeat in Paris ought to spur him on to bigger and better by summer.

But Wawrinka didn’t look like most. He looked to be incredibly fit, playing top-flight tennis against still-stiff opposition. Big 4 or not, is this Wawrinka here to stay?

RD: When he plays his best tennis, one can very much make a case that Wawrinka looks like the best player in the world. It remains to be seen, however, just how often he can summon the power to completely thwart the rest of the field again. He has done it twice at majors within the last 18 months; as a result, the doubts concerning his ability to repeat the Slam-winning feat should be out the window. Will a second Slam title put additional pressure on him, or will he be even more relaxed?

A solid bet would be to say “he’ll continue to come and go,” but he has more than proven how much he enjoys a big stage. Along with the “Big 4” (and soon-to-retire Lleyton Hewitt), he’s one of only six active men to play with multiple Grand Slam victories under his belt. How’s that for an elite circle? Where do you put Wawrinka into the ATP landscape right now, David? Has the landscape really changed as much over the course of the fortnight in Paris?

DK: I saw Rennae Stubbs compare Djokovic’s French Open disappointment to Sam Stosur’s in 2010; the Aussie took out a trio of title contenders only to fall to would-be cannon fodder in the final. And indeed, the stars had appeared aligned for the Serb to complete the Career Slam.

But I was actually reminded of another WTA moment in watching Wawrinka’s win. Amélie Mauresmo was long known for being an unrealized talent, thwarted by nerves and gutsier opponents at many a major tournament. The Frenchwoman finally reached a second major final after her 1999 breakthrough in Australia, only to have the trophy handed to her by an ailing Justine Henin. She had won the title, but the victory surely felt too surreal to mean much.

Fast-forward to a few months later and Mauresmo and Henin met again in the finals of Wimbledon, where the latter was attempting to conqueror a Career Slam of her own. Playing inspired tennis, Mauresmo crashed the net and crushed the dreams of her slight Belgian rival to capture an unequivocal triumph on the lawns of London. She played solid tennis for the rest of the season, but seemed to lose her edge in the ensuing months and years before retiring a shadow of her former self.

At thirty years of age, Wawrinka could well be primed for a similar career trajectory. He was certainly clear in press that he considered himself separate from any existing Big 4, seeming to imply a sense of satisfaction with the career he has carved out.

And yet one could discern a desire to continue competing against the chosen few, which perhaps could be the wisest mentality for a man only now coming into his own. Wawrinka doesn’t feel quite he’s “made it,” a notion that would leave anyone in this generation lacking the hunger necessary to repeat a major result. Appearing as the underdog on Chatrier Court, he played emphatic tennis to knock another king from his throne, but Djokovic can keep the chair as far as the Swiss is concerned. Wawrinka just wants the crown.

What do you make of Wawrinka’s second Grand Slam victory? Sound off in the comments!

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