So far the best match at the 2013 Australian Open, tennis fans were treated to a thrilling 4th Round encounter between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas ‘Stan the Man’ Wawrinka. Wawrinka, ranked 17th in the world, played one of the best matches of his career, turning a contest no one thought would be competitive into a nail-biting war of attrition. Each player showcased unbelievable shot making and defence in the 5-hour match, until Djokovic edged out a 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10, victory just before 2:00 am local time.
Wawrinka started the match in unbelievable form. As announcer Vijy Amritraj stated, “He’s making the world no. 1 look average.” In the first set, which Wawrinka won 6-1, he won an unbelievable 15 of 25 receiving points (60%) and won 27 of 40 overall points (68%). He was, for lack of a better term, in a state of grace. This carried him all the way to a 5-3 lead in the second set before Djokovic righted the ship and stormed back to win the second and third sets. The fourth set was by far the most competitive with each player give the other their best shot with Wawrinka emerging in a tiebreaker. In the fifth set a visibly tiring Wawrinka began throwing more and more junk at Djokovic who took it all in stride. In the final games of the match, both players dug deep, found their energy reserves and elevated their games. The final match point was among the best rallies of the match.
What made this game special is that both players showcased what makes their respective strategies great. Djokovic attempted to use his superior fitness to create long rallies and tire the Swiss. Wawrinka on the other hand went for bigger shots as part of his extremely successful endeavour to shorten points. As such, for most of the match he had a sizable lead on points that lasted less than 9 shots but finished with an exceptionally high number of unforced errors . On big points however, Djokovic’s tactics began to pay dividends with the World #1 simply waiting for the long-time Swiss #2 to come back to earth.
The difference maker for Wawrinka was his one-handed backhand, long considered among the best in the sport, which he repeatedly used with devastating effects. Compared to Roger Federer, who also uses a one handed backhand, Wawrinka can generate more consistent pace and depth which gave Djokovic a lot of trouble. He was able to keep Djokovic guessing and off balance by consistently hitting in behind the renowned scrambler. Throughout the match he maintained a higher average velocity on his groundstrokes than Djokovic. He also had great success attacking Djokovic’s forehand, blasting it with raw paced which forced errors or opened up the court for a winner. Both players played wonderful net games, each winning near 70% of their approaches. Both players served well, but Wawrinka probably retuned better, limiting Djokovic to only 7 aces. In the fifth set Wawrinka served well, putting in 57% of his first serves and winning 70%. While he was often under pressure on his service games, he held his ground until his eleventh service game. Djokovic had an uncharacteristically sloppy night, committing many more unforced errors than usual at 66. At the same time he failed to attack on shorter offerings from Wawrinka, playing an uncharacteristically passive defensive game at times.
The fifth set, like most fifth sets, became a contest of fitness and tenacity. Wawrinka, who had a medical stop earlier in the match, began to have leg problems early in the set and lost much of his movement, while Djokovic looked as strong as ever. But Wawrinka refused to go away. He went shot for shot against the world no.1 and was able to contest every service game. He used his huge first serve to force Djokovic onto the defensive. However, a failure to challenge the call on a return of serve at 4-4 in the fifth set allowed Djokovic to hold his serve and keep Wawrinka from serving for the match. At 11-10 Djokovic came back from 40-15 down to get his first match point, which was promptly stuffed by a massive Wawrinka first serve. Djokovic forced a second match point which Wawrinka again saved, this time with a beautiful down the line backhand winner. In the end, Wawrinka’s magical night ended on the third match point, after a more than five hour marathon match.
Without a doubt, Stan the Man contested his best match of his career. Interestingly, it came on the same day that his namesake, the original Stan the Man, Stan Musial the American baseball legend passed away. Musial was a three-time MVP and among a handful of the greatest baseball players ever. It’s a nice sentiment to feel that maybe the spirit of Stan the Man was somehow present for his, lending his namesake on the court some of his legendary abilities.
Hopefully Stanislas Wawrinka can take something from this disheartening loss and use it to improve his game. He is a player with enough skill that his best matches shouldn’t seem like he’s just catching lightning in a bottle. Hopefully this match signals good things to come for Stan the Man.