by Harold Li
In arguably the two best matches of 2013, Stanislas Wawrinka pushed Novak Djokovic to the limit. After an epic match point that has been seen over 200K times on YouTube, Wawrinka lost 12-10 in the fifth after 5 hours at the Australian Open. Eight months later, Wawrinka would lose to Djokovic again at the US Open Semi-Finals after leading two sets to one and winning just as many points as the Serb. After the match, Wawrinka was quoted saying, “At the Australian Open, I had to play my best level all the match to stay with him. [At the US Open], when I was playing my best level, I was better than him.”
In the most anticipated quarterfinal matchup at the 2014 Australian Open, another five-set battle ensued between the two titans, and it was Wawrinka that prevailed 9-7 in the fifth. This propelled him to his first grand slam title by overcoming Rafael Nadal in the final.
What changed? What got Wawrinka over the top? What made Wawrinka “better than [Djokovic]” on the day? By analyzing his three matches against Djokovic in the past 12 months and his Australian Open run, we outline the several key statistics in these matchups that show just how much Wawrinka has improved mentally to become the first player outside the Big 4 to win a Grand Slam since 2009.
1) Wawrinka “Never Went Away”
At the 2013 Australian Open, Wawrinka held a 6-1, 5-2 lead before losing 5 straight games, allowing Djokovic to level the tie. This slip-up happened again at the US Open. Wawrinka led 6-2, 4-2 before losing the second set in a tie-breaker. He then led 2 sets to 1 before losing serve at the beginning of the 4th set. Whatever Wawrinka does to take the lead, he must back it up through aggressive play. In both matches, Wawrinka dominated the rallies with his signature one-handed backhand, only to dip in confidence and let Djokovic dictate play when he had a seemingly comfortable lead.
This did not happen in 2014. In fact, Wawrinka came back from losing the first set 6-2 with two flawless sets. In addition, he came back from a break down in the fifth set to defeat Djokovic. Whenever he held a lead in the second and third set, he never let Djokovic get back into the set. In the last 12 months, Wawrinka has developed the mental fortitude to keep pace with his opponent during adversity and maintain dominance during advantages.
2) Create and Convert Break Points when it Matters
In the fifth set of Djokovic and Wawrinka’s Australian Open showdown, Wawrinka converted only 1/8 break point opportunities. Earlier on, he had converted 6/10 break points. Wawrinka needed to capitalize chances at crucial moments if he wanted to defeat the Serb but failed to do so. Wawrinka also had lackluster return games in the final set of their US Open encounter. While he saved 7/8 break points, including 5 in an epic 30-point, 21-minute game, he failed to create break points of his own. Wawrinka had to be aggressive in the return games and capitalize his opportunities to break serve.
Wawrinka did both in the epic 2014 Australian Open encounter. While he held off 2 out of 3 break points that Djokovic earned, he also converted both of the 2 break point opportunities he earned, the first of which was an immediately break back after losing his own serve, the second of which was the match point that won him the match.
3) Hold Serve Under Pressure
A key reason why Djokovic has won so many close encounters is his ability to hold serve under pressure. When Djokovic was at 30-30 or Deuce on his serve against Wawrinka, he held serve 85% of the time. On the other hand, Wawrinka only held serve in the same situation 65% of the time. It is important that Wawrinka holds serve in these pressure moments. His victories over Berdych and Murray at the US Open should boost his confidence and help him handle these situations in the future.
Wawrinka again overcame this hurdle with flying colors at the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals. In the match, Wawrinka held serve 10 out of 14 times when facing a 30-30 or deuce situation (71%), a decent improvement from the previous two matchups. However, Djokovic is 5 for 9 (56%) in similar serving situations, which is a testament to Wawrinka’s improving ability to seize opportunities when it counts. This slight difference may be all it takes to turn a loss into a victory.
4) Newfound Consistency
Wawrinka has not just become stronger, but has also become consistently strong. In the past 52 weeks, he has won 69.6% of deciding sets, higher than his 60% career rate. He has won 6 of his 11 matches (54.5%) against top 10 opponents in the past year, far surpassing his dismal 30 victories out of 97 matches (30.9%) career statistics. He has won 39.3% of his matches after losing the first set, and won 93.9% of his matches after winning the first set, significantly higher than his 33.2% and 83.3% lifelong rate. He is positioned in the top 10 of all of these statistical categories. Wawrinka is not just a top 10 wonder; he is now an established top 10 player capable of consistently challenging the top players in men’s tennis. It is reasonable to believe that Wawrinka now feels he belongs in the top 10 and with this newfound mental altitude, he will continue to push towards becoming the top player in the world.
Stanislas Wawrinka has now established himself in the upper echelons of tennis and has written himself into the history books. With this newfound mental fortitude, Wawrinka should be able to build upon his Australian Open success and have a career-best 2014 season. No longer will he have to “fail better”, the quote tattooed onto his left arm. He can now “succeed.