Stan Wawrinka: I never even dreamt I could win a grand slam
Despite the attention and the accolades, the Australian Open champion sees no reason to change his ways on the back of his triumph in January
success in tennis, in itself, a rarity. Over the previous two decades, Martina Hingis had won five major titles and Roger Federer a scarcely believable 17. But Stan Wawrinka? That sleepy-eyed, barrel-chested chap who always seems to have sunburn on his nose? Few had seen this result coming, not when Rafael Nadal was to be his opponent in the Australian Open final.
Even Wawrinka, in fact, found his mind scrambled by the scale of his achievement. “It took me a while to realise exactly how big it is because I never expected, never dream to win a grand slam,” he told Telegraph Sport.
“It’s something so special, so tough to do. Because if you look at the past 10 years you had four guys and one Del Potro [whose 2009 US Open win represented the only other break in the pattern].
“For sure it is something really big, but I know I deserve it. I beat Djokovic, I beat Berdych, I beat Rafa, even if he wasn’t 100 per cent in the middle of the match. I did it and I deserve to win that tournament.”
Nadal’s performance might have been inhibited by a back spasm, which reduced his first-serve speed to a hacker’s level of 80mph at one point, but there was no guarantee that the world No 1 would have been able to handle Wawrinka’s free-swinging game anyway.
The prevailing wisdom states that first-timers in grand slam finals should be nervous, inhibited, shy. But Wawrinka is not like other players. He walked out onto the biggest stage of his life and owned it from the start. His groundstrokes sounded like cannon-fire and he unleashed his glorious single-handed backhand like D’Artagnan wielding a sabre.
So where did this sense of relaxation, of self-assurance, stem from? Of all the superstars, Wawrinka is perhaps the best at remembering that tennis is just a game. He represents a throwback to the days when sport was a vocation rather than a career, when Rod Laver and John Newcombe toured the world for the love of the chase rather than bulging pay cheques.
Where the “Big Four” often come across like the CEOs of their own multinational corporations, Wawrinka could be running a cottage industry.
So when the moment came to face Nadal – a man whom, incidentally, Wawrinka had never taken a set off in 12 previous meetings – he did not go into his shell but instead sat up until 1.30am the previous night chatting to his friends and his support staff.
“Stan is old-school,” says his manager Lawrence Frankopan. “You hear about a lot of these guys shutting themselves away from the world, having dinner at 6pm and going to bed at nine. He is not like that. It’s not that he goes out on the town or anything, just that he takes an interest in the world around him. Like in Australia this year, when he went down to the James Bond exhibition at the Melbourne Museum the day before the final. No hoopla, no security or anything, just a normal guy checking out an Aston Martin DB5.”
Were you looking to foster groundedness – a rare but valuable quality in elite sportsmen – you could find few better starting points than Wawrinka’s upbringing on his parents’ farm near Lausanne.
Founded by his grandfather Wolfram, it has always been staffed by workers with mental issues and learning disabilities. The young Wawrinka mixed with them as he baked bread, milked the cows or collected eggs.
“I think it is good to grow up on a farm, with nature, with animals and everything when you are young,” Wawrinka says now. “I was there working with my parents, the handicapped people. I learnt how to be with them, and it showed me that life is not always easy and that I am really lucky.
“But I chose my own path. When I was young, I liked to spend hours and hours on the practice court. It’s true sometimes that if you see kids now, we don’t have a new generation coming, because when it starts to be difficult they just stop and they change. They have a choice to do what they want because the level of life is really good in Switzerland. Unfortunately some younger player doesn’t understand that if you want to get through, you have to sacrifice, you have to work hard and there is no easy way.”
Like his great friend and role model Federer, Wawrinka was never pushed into tennis by his family. Yet his life changed when he found a receptive coach at his local club. It says much about Swiss tennis that Dimitri Zavialoff was skilled enough to guide this talented eight-year-old through the junior system, and even take him into the senior top 10 before they parted in 2010. How many national federations – including the Lawn Tennis Association under Roger Draper – would have insisted on parachuting their own man into the job?
Sensibly, Zavialoff never tried to coach Wawrinka’s maverick, daredevil streak out of him. Even now, Wawrinka tries to fit the occasional skydive into his schedule. “I love all that crazy stuff,” he said. “I did one jump from a plane last year, and maybe I can do another this year if I have time.”
The connection between playing style and personality is not hard to draw. If Andy Murray’s game is complex and sometimes a little defensive, like his character, then Wawrinka hits the ball with devastating simplicity and devil-may-care aggression. There are few sights in tennis like his bludgeoning backhand down the line.
So what about his response to January’s breakthrough? Murray has confessed to feeling a little “flat” after claiming the Wimbledon title last year and so achieving his lifelong goal. But Wawrinka is not worried about suffering a let-down.
“For Andy maybe it is different,” Wawrinka said. “He has been there many years, he has played many grand slam finals, he has won all the other tournaments, so maybe he is a little bit tired. For me, everything is new. I never won a Masters 1000 tournament. I was finishing top 10 for the first time last year and making my first World Tour Finals. I am mentally still fresh, and I want more. I want to win more matches.”
A naturally carefree character, success has not changed Wawrinka’s status as one of the most spontaneous people on the tour. He will keep taking in the sights as he goes.