Sunday, 26 January 2014

Switzerland has a new No. 1 tennis player, and tennis has a new grand slam champion - well done, Stan Wawrinka

I’ve barely watched any tennis since Andy Murray won Wimbledon last year. That was such a deliriously glorious high point for me – up there with him winning the previous year’s US Open, Laver completing his second Grand Slam in 1969, Borg winning his fifth Wimbledon in a row against McEnroe, and Federer finally winning the French Open in 2009 – that the 2013 US Open felt like an anti-climax. Federer was having a lousy, humiliating year, Murray was evidently carrying a serious injury, Djokovich had forgotten how to win slam finals, and Nadal was playing the best tennis of his career – and, I’m really not a fan of Nadal’s playing style.

I found myself just as disinterested when the Australian Open started two weeks ago, mainly because neither Murray nor Federer were going to win it – Murray is still recovering from major back surgery, and Federer, despite turning back the clock and reaching the semi-final, is never going to win another slam. I just didn’t fancy having to sit through another sixteen-hour Nadal-Djokovic final full of sweat and effort and superhuman physical endurance, but distinctly short on the sort of genius that Federer and Murray routinely bring to a tennis court. (The idea that the amiable Teuton and Auric Goldfinger lookalike Boris Becker was going to help Djokovic rediscover his 2011 formula for beating Nadal seemed ludicrous – Becker was a terrific player, but he is a prime exponent of the Alan Shearer “Stating the Bleeding Obvious” style of sports commentary.)

When Federer faced Nadal in the semi-finals two days’ ago, various professional pundits – who really should have known better by now – predicted a Federer win. I – who really don’t know anything about the game – predicted a Federer loss in three sets, which is what happened. I was delighted when Stan Wawrinka beat Berdych to reach his first slam final, but the downside was that Nadal was bound to win his 14th slam title, leaving him just three short of Federer’s record of seventeen. After all, Nadal – the greatest competitor in the history of the sport (maybe in all sport) - has only ever lost slam finals to Federer and Djokovic.

So, not wanting a depressing start to my Sunday, I avoided going online to confirm that Wawrinka had been overwhelmed by the occasion and that Nadal had won in three easy sets. I was barely listening when the Radio 4 newsreader began her report with “Stan Wawrinka…” – but I immediately snapped to attention, and before she had even uttered the words “has beaten Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open”, I had leapt from my chair (not an easy nor a recommended move for a sciatica sufferer) and was orgasmically shouting ”Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Well, can you blame me? I’m a fan of Andy Murray and Roger Federer, I’d been looking forward to yet another Ashes win for the England cricket team in Australia, and, while I’m not that interested in football, I like to see Manchester United win. In other words, it has been a truly bloody awful three months. But it’s not just for that reason I enjoyed hearing the news of Wawrinka’s unlikely victory. As the Swiss No.2 for a decade, he has laboured away in the enormous shadow cast by his illustrious compatriot: even his one great prize – an Olympic doubles gold medal – was won alongside Federer. Compared to old Twinkle Toes, he’s a useless media performer – unproficient in English, introverted, taciturn: if Federer is a smooth man, Stan is definitely a hairy man (when interviewed at last year’s US Open after being defeated in the semi-final by Djokovic, he uttered these immortal words on live prime-time US television – “He’s just so fucking tough.” Federer looks like a male fashion model and moves like a ballet dancer: Stan, squat and pock-marked, looks like some Slavic peasant WWII soldier, and isn’t the most graceful of athletes. He has the best one-handed backhand in the game – but as Federer’s record shows, Nadal loves bamboozling one-handed backhand merchants with high, looping topspin forehands. While Stan’s been involved over the years in any number of close slam matches with the Top Four, there’s always been that sense that, even when he beats one of them, another big beast will gobble him up in the next round: we tennis watchers have always known that, while Stan was a good enough player to win a slam, his temperament would ensure that he never did.

How wonderful to be proved wrong! Okay, Nadal was injured – but I don’t care: given the violence of his effective but graceless playing style, it’s a miracle he can still walk, let alone win tennis matches (how this miracle has been achieved has been the subject of debate for many years, but let’s not go there). It sounds as if Stan was playing well enough to beat Nadal in any case – we’ll never know.

Congratulations also to Magnus Norman, the former Swedish tennis player (once runner-up at the French Open) whose coaching methods propelled fellow-Swede Robin Söderling into the top ranks of tennis for a few years and has, since becoming Stan’s coach last April, transformed his new charge from a talented also-ran into a real champion.

Possibly the thing that Stan will have most trouble coming to terms with is that, as of tomorrow, he’ll be the No.1 Swiss tennis player. Who would ever have imagined it? Probably not Stan.

Now, I’m genuinely looking forward to this year’s Wimbledon. Would it be too much to ask for a Wawrinka-Murray final? Probably - but after what happened last night, I'm allowed to dream.

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