STANISLAS Wawrinka ended Novak Djokovic’s three-year rule at Melbourne Park yesterday, winning a five-set classic at a heaving Rod Laver Arena to sensationally dump the Serb out of the Australian Open last eight.
Heartbroken by Djokovic in two five-set epics in Melbourne and the US Open last year, the nuggety 28-year-old played out of his skin to upset his grand slam nemesis 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 in four thrilling hours under the centre court lights.
In a final set of unrelenting tension, it was the iron-willed Djokovic whose resolve finally cracked as he pushed a drop-shot wide to concede match-point and surrendered with a poor volley slapped into the tram-lines.
The Swiss’s triumph was richly deserved, though, and he will meet seventh-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych in his first Melbourne Park semi-final, having pulled off a seismic defeat to shake up the men’s title race.
“I came on the court tonight with a lot of confidence in myself, knowing that, if I play my best game, I always have a chance against him,” Wawrinka said after ending a 14-match losing streak to the Serb. “It’s always tough, especially against Novak. I was tired, I was cramping a bit, I was nervous too.
“I had to fight within myself to fight against him and try to keep my line during the game. Last year was really tough, this year it’s a new year.”
Having long lived in the shadow of compatriot Roger Federer, Wawrinka grabbed his own piece of history.
Snapping Djokovic’s 28-match winning sequence on tour and 25-match streak at Melbourne Park, the unshaven Swiss will also go down as the man who ended his run of 14 successive grand slam semi-finals.
The win was especially sweet, coming a year after shedding bitter tears in the wake of a fourth-round loss to the same opponent, a disappointment compounded by another five-set defeat in the semi-finals of the US Open at Flushing Meadows.
“He knows how to play now on the big stage. You could feel that with his game,” said a philosophical Djokovic, paying tribute to his conqueror. “It’s an amazing court, probably the court where I had the most excitement in my tennis career.
“Unfortunately, somebody has to lose in the end. This year was me. I lost to a better player.”
Wawrinka started nervously, notching a trio of unforced errors to gift the six-times grand slam champion the opening break in the sixth game.
Two set points arrived in a hurry and Djokovic sealed the second, whipping a drop-shot cross-court from a kind net-cord.
Wawrinka regrouped and went toe-to-toe with the Serb in a series of thrilling rallies before blasting an imperious backhand down the line to break Djokovic in the seventh game of the second set. Throwing an icy glare at his opponent after outdoing him in a 29-point rally, the Swiss then thumped a first serve at Djokovic’s body to raise two set points and sliced a second serve into his midriff on the second to level the match.
Wawrinka rolled on in an electric atmosphere, breaking a rattled Djokovic in the third game of the third set, leaving the Serb roaring in frustration and shooting a beleaguered look at his new coach Boris Becker.
The German frowned as his charge blasted a forehand long to concede a second break, allowing Wawrinka to calmly serve out the set with another booming serve.
Djokovic gathered his formidable composure, turning the match on its head with a run of five consecutive points that included an astonishing, lunging return that lobbed the hapless Wawrinka to bring up break point.
Flustered by the setback, Wawrinka sprayed a shot long to concede the break and then bashed a ball into the air in disgust to earn a code violation as Djokovic roared wildly.
The Serb blasted an ace to take the match into a decider and the crackling intensity told on both players as they traded service breaks.
With the match delicately poised at 5-5, a brief break in play due to a passing shower only added to the drama.
His serve under siege, Wawrinka was rewarded for hanging tough in the final moments as Djokovic stumbled at 8-7 when serving to stay in the match. Amid gasps from the crowd, the 26-year-old rushed the net at 30-30 rather than defend from the baseline and was punished as the Swiss completed one of his greatest victories.
Djokovic’s exit left Rafael Nadal is new even-money favourite to win the Australian Open with Ladbrokes, prior to his game this morning against Grigor Dimitrov. Wawrinka is 5-1 to triumph, with Andy Murray and Roger Federer both 6-1, the same price as Tomas Berdych.