When any high-profile person fails on a public stage, people talk. A palpable buzz rolls through the community most affected by the episode.
Sometimes that community is a small neighborhood rocked by an unexpected scandal from a supposed pillar of the town council, revealed to have led a double life. Sometimes that community is as big as the world itself, reacting to Sepp Blatter’s abrupt resignation from FIFA.
Tuesday in Paris, another Swiss man — in tennis shorts — was certain to lose, not knowing than a Swiss man in a suit and tie was going to dominate the news cycle with a resignation. However, if you thought a Swiss man was going to lose at Roland Garros, you probably would have fingered Stan Wawrinka as your likely pick.
Instead of exiting France, however, Wawrinka chose to stick around. He pushed Roger Federer out of the tournament in a swift and convincing straight-set clinic. Wawrinka’s 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (4) triumph moves him into his first French Open semifinal on Friday against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. That will be the second match on Court Philippe Chatrier, following a first semifinal with the winner of Wednesday’s blockbuster quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
As said above, when high-profile people fail, people talk. Naturally, whenever Federer — tennis’s foremost icon (love him or not, that’s true) — is taken down in one of the sport’s four major tournaments, the flow of the discussion will most immediately gravitate to, “Why did Federer not win? Why did he fail? What’s wrong?”
These questions are understandable, and it’s undeniably true that after years and years of expecting only one outcome against men not named Nadal, Djokovic, or sometimes Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych, a lot of tennis fans would still instinctively wonder why Federer could not walk off the court a winner. Something must be amiss — that’s the reflexive reaction from most (though certainly not all) fans.
However, as understandable as that reaction might be, it’s no longer the right reaction… at least not on a generally assumed basis, and certainly not right now.
Instead of wondering why Federer failed, the better way of understanding the outcome of this all-Swiss quarterfinal is to explain why Wawrinka won.
Let’s put the matter this way, framing it so that any fan of any sport (not just tennis) can relate to what’s being said: In any sporting event, there is always a varying degree to which fans and pundits can and will expect a winner to emerge.
Some matches produce contexts and background details that make it absolutely impossible to imagine one team or player beating the other. You not only don’t think Player A will beat Player B; you don’t even see any possible way in which the result can happen.
On the other hand, some subtexts leading into major sporting events convince you that you have absolutely no clue how the match will go. It’s a dead 50-50 toss-up, in your eyes.
Where does Wawrinka-Federer fall on this spectrum between one extreme and the other? This match wasn’t a toss-up, but it was pretty damn close, and no, that’s not revisionist history — that’s an acknowledgment of a growing sense of clarity Stan Wawrinka is creating in his most unusual career.
Put Stan Wawrinka against Kevin Anderson or some other less distinguished foe in a Masters 1000 tournament, especially Indian Wells in March, and he’s a lost puppy. Wawrinka failed to make the quarterfinals in each of the first four Masters 1000 events of the year: Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, and Madrid. Moreover, you need only two wins, not three, to reach the quarters of an M-1000 event if you’re a top-8 seed, as Wawrinka was in each of those four events.
Wawrinka was poor at those tournaments; outside a title in Rotterdam (a 500-point tournament), he had done nothing since late February to suggest that he was going to accomplish anything of note in the remainder of 2015. Having reached the Australian Open semifinals thanks to a devastatingly effective performance against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals, Wawrinka had seemingly set himself up for a huge year, but after crashing out of one tournament after another, it seemed the 2014 Australian Open champion was regressing before our eyes.
Moreover, the one non-major tournament leading up to the French Open was one in which Wawrinka seemed to undo all the good things he accomplished in the span of roughly 45 minutes.
In the Rome Masters, Wawrinka had defeated Rafael Nadal in a high-quality quarterfinal match. The following night, Wawrinka raced to a 3-0 lead over Federer in the semifinals, but as quickly as he grabbed the lead, he squandered it and then some. For whatever reason, Wawrinka completely lost focus, and in about 45 minutes’ time, that 3-0 lead turned into a 12-3 Federer steamroller and a 6-4, 6-2 scoreline for the elder Swiss. When Wawrinka curiously entered the Geneva tournament (a 250-point event) the week before the French and bowed out multiple rounds before the final, who would have thought Stan The Man was ready to put the pieces together in Paris?
This is why Wawrinka was doubted heading into the French Open itself and Tuesday’s match in particular. Yet, it should now be apparent that as puzzling as Wawrinka can be in so many negative ways, he has become a player who is consistently capable of delivering a pleasant surprise… to the extent that his masterclass performances should no longer be seen as surprising ever again.
We go back to the beginning of this piece: This was a match in which every immediate, reflexive, and logical inclination went toward Federer, but while that immediate instinct existed (and with good reason, as is the case for many logical instincts), it’s not as though the notion of Wawrinka winning was remote.
Sure, Federer was playing on a third straight day, flip-flopping the scenario which greeted the Swiss pair’s previous meeting in a major quarterfinal, at Wimbledon in 2014. (A fresher, fitter Federer won that day.) However, Federer’s level of rest really had nothing to do with this match. What mattered is that Wawrinka was bright, bold and (toward the tennis ball) belligerent from start to finish. Sure, the logical view suggested that Wawrinka wouldn’t allow his brain (which has sabotaged many a tournament for him in the past) to get out of the way of his body. The logical view suggested that Stan would fall at some point (Rome, ATP World Tour Finals semifinal round, and so many other occasions from the past).
However, Federer had to carry one basic fear into this match: What if Wawrinka puts on the armor of clarity he used in destroying Nishikori in the Aussie quarters? What if Stan becomes The Man again and recaptures that knack for owning the big moment, a knack he displayed when winning the 2014 Australian Open and reaching the 2013 U.S. Open semifinals?
What if — Federer had to think — this man who so frequently tumbles out of the early stages of non-major tournaments is becoming a beast at the big ones, making six quarterfinals or better in the last seven majors, reaching his first French semifinal, and making back-to-back semis in the first two majors of 2015?
What if — Federer and his fans must be thinking right now — Stan The Man is simply the kind of player who, like 2014 Kentucky basketball or the New York Giants’ recent Super Bowl teams, gets bored with the everyday stuff in his sport but lights up when the biggest moments arrive?
We’ve been wondering what kind of player Stan Wawrinka is over these past two years of wildly uneven results, of Mount Everest highs and subterranean lows. We’ve been groping and grasping for some sense of a pattern, some idea of who this guy really is.
We’ve found our answer: Stan Wawrinka is a Big Moment Player in men’s tennis. He’s not the guy you want to play a match if your life depends on it, because that match could be against a tomato can in a Geneva ATP 250 event, one Wawrinka will lose.
Get Stan in a major quarterfinal, though, and he’ll bust his rear end… while crushing the little yellow ball in such a way that his opponent won’t be able to do much about it.
Roger Federer lost to Marin Cilic in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals on a day when a more powerful opponent took the racquet out of his hand. Stan Wawrinka did the same thing on Tuesday.
Are these results enormously painful for Federer’s fans to absorb? Sure. Yet, that’s tennis for you — the opponent always has a say in the matter, and if that opponent is too good on the given day, there’s no next match.
Why did Roger Federer lose? Stan Wawrinka played a wonderful match.
Why did Wawrinka win? He got out of his own way, knowing that a big moment in tennis was waiting to be claimed.
That’s who he is — a man who lives for super-sized moments. He doesn’t capture all of them, but since the 2013 U.S. Open semifinal run, he’s captured a lot more of them than most of the non-Big Three faces in the crowd.
With one more win on Friday, Stan The Man will go for a second major championship. Should Wawrinka beat Tsonga in the semis, many tennis fans will realize that while this result on Tuesday wasn’t exactly expected, it’s anything but the surprise so many are making it out to be.