36 grand-slam events into his decade-long plus career, Swiss tennis player Stanislas Wawrinka has finally reached the finals in one of them. The 28-year-old will face off against either Spain’s Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer — a friend and compatriot of Wawrinka — this weekend in the Australian Open.
For Wawrinka, this is the ultimate test of whether or not his early-career struggles — marked by a tendency to wilt under the pressure of the game’s biggest moments — are behind him. And it certainly won’t be easy despite his recent string of successes. Wawrinka has one win in 14 tries against Federer, and has never beaten Nadal in his 12 attempts. En route to the Australian Open’s final, Wawrinka took down number two-ranked Novak Djokovic (whom he was previously 0-14 against) in five sets. Perhaps that is enough of a confidence-builder as Wawrinka heads into what will be the most decisive match of his career.
The Nadal/Federer match, taking place in Australia on Thursday (3:30 AM Friday, Eastern Standard Time), will yield two very different opponents for Wawrinka.
Nadal, who has been suffering from blisters on his left (dominant) hand, is the favorite to win it all. However, the blisters became worse during his quarterfinal match against 22-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, leaving a glimmer of hope for the neophyte Dimitrov. (One soon quashed by Nadal.) Federer, on the other hand, has gone through several very difficult tests to get to the semis against Nadal. He took down tenth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and fourth-ranked Andy Murray while only dropping one set to the two. In the first three rounds before Tsonga and Murray, Federer had swept with three straight three-set victories over James Duckworth, Blaz Kavcic and Teymuraz Gabashvili. After an incredibly disappointing 2013 showing, the 32-year-old 17-time grand slam winner looks to have finally turned the corner. He should be a much more difficult opponent for an arguably wounded Nadal.
Wawrinka may match up better against Federer, especially if you factor in that he has beaten him once in his career compared to zero success over Nadal. The all-Swiss final would be epic: the two were partners at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when they brought home gold in the Men’s Doubles event. More importantly, Wawrinka’s style of play is likely to match up better against the slower (than Nadal, at least) Federer. Wawrinka is known for having one of the hardest one-handed backhands in the world. His serves have been registered as fast as 144 MPH; reacting to this may be difficult for Federer even without having played Nadal less than 48 hours earlier. Wawrinka’s side-to-side game could exhaust the 32-year-old into submission. Against Nadal, Wawrinka will have to hope Federer wore him down a bit. The blisters are one thing, but by getting through Federer, the Spaniard will have shown they’re nothing more than an annoyance. Yet though he won’t be as affected as Federer would be by the short rest, Nadal will still be less rested than Wawrinka.
There’s also the question of court preference. Of Nadal’s 13 grand slam titles, only one has come at the Australian Open (on acrylic-based hard court). The U.S. Open, where Nadal only has two titles, is also on hard court. Wawrinka (albeit has never won a major title on one) is famously successful on hard courts. Federer has won 9 of his seventeen career grand slam titles on hard court.
Wawrinka’s biggest struggles have always seemed to be mental. He possesses the talent to compete with the best, but fades at crucial moments. Working with new coach Magnus Norman for the past year has helped him improve his game significantly, and has handed him more confidence going up against bigger names. In 2013, Wawrinka nearly tripled his earnings to $2,880,925 from his previous high of $988,428. He also advanced to the semifinals at the U.S. Open in September, the last grand slam tournament of 2013, before losing to Djokovic.
In just three days, Wawrinka will get a chance to become just the second player not named Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, or Andy Murray to win a Grand Slam title since 2005. He’ll also be given an opportunity to take his game and his career to the heights always promised by his talent. His record says he’ll choke. If he can avoid that, he’ll be doubly deserving of all the accolades to follow.