STAN Wawrinka needs to get a new tattoo. He has long since outgrown his old one.
Inscribed on his arm is a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It was put there in the days when Wawrinka did not believe, when he lived in the shadow of Roger Federer, when he thought he did not belong in the company of the Big Four at the top of the rankings. But now Wawrinka believes. Now Wawrinka knows.
The man who hoped to fail better demolished Novak Djokovic to win his first French Open title 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 yesterday and in so doing, he crushed the Serb’s spirit. This was the trophy the world No 1 had set his heart on; this was the victory that, if he could achieve it, would complete his career Grand Slam and elevate him to the position of one of the all-time greats. He had worked for it, he had dreamt about it, he could almost taste it. And Wawrinka ripped it from his grasp.
“I played the match of my life,” Wawrinka said, stating the obvious. “I can’t believe it. I’m still shaking. It’s quite strange when I tell myself that I have a gold medal [Olympic doubles with Federer], I have Davis Cup and two grand slams. I never expected to be that strong in my career.
“I have a problem to realise that I won the French Open. It’s always the same when you win a title because you are a little bit lost in your mind. I am proud to beat Novak – I have a lot of respect for him and his team. For me it was an amazing feeling to play and to win today.”
But deep down, Wawrinka knew he was capable of playing the match of his life. When he won the Australian Open 18 months ago against a hobbled Rafael Nadal, he was stunned. It took him months to take in what he had achieved but slowly he began to realise that he could beat anyone in any situation. That new steel was then forged in heat of the Davis Cup final last November where he was the mainstay of the Swiss victory. Federer was the story, but Wawrinka, rock solid and fearless, was the man who made it happen.
“It is not easy to talk now,” Djokovic said, trying very hard not to cry as the centre court crowd gave him a standing ovation, “but I have to say that there is something more important than victories and that is character and respect. And I have great respect for you Stan. You are a great champion.”
Djokovic should know. He has been lifting trophies around the globe with monotonous regularity for the past five years and has been the man to beat as the world No 1 since winning Wimbledon last year. As one champion to another, he recognised the signs.
It took three hours and 12 minutes for the Swiss to claim his reward, most of which was spent clattering winners with that stunning backhand of his and playing to the very limit of his nerve. There was not a line or a corner he dare not aim for and, most of the time, he nailed it with laser-guided accuracy. But he had to be patient, too.
For the best part of two sets, Djokovic was doing what he always does – making very few mistakes and defending as if his life depended upon it. There was no place that Wawrinka could put the ball that Djokovic would not hunt it down and return it, sometimes with added venom, sometimes just to keep the point alive.
Yet, just as in the final against Rafael Nadal last year, once the first set had been secured, Djokovic wavered. Wawrinka pushed and he pushed to earn himself four break points in that set and, each time, Djokovic averted the danger. But Wawrinka kept at it. He would not go away, he would not let himself be beaten by the occasion or by the reputation of his opponent. This was a final and he had as much of a right to win it as the world No 1 and, when he bullied Djokovic in another error, he had his fifth break point of the set. Better still, he had his first set point and, as the Serb sent another backhand over the baseline, Wawrinka was level pegging at a set-all.
Djokovic smashed his racket to smithereens and narrowly escaped an automatic default. As he threw his racket to the ground, the towel he was carrying in his left hand shielded the ballboy who was standing just inches away. Had Djokovic hit the ballboy, the final would have been over. As it was, he had two more sets of Wawrinka’s punishment to endure before his day was done.
The longer the third set went, the more lost Djokovic looked. Wawrinka was growing in confidence and authority with every rally and some of his winners were breathtaking – backhands fired around the net post and into the corner, forehands fired like a bullet past the Serb’s flailing racket.
Still, it could not last forever and, as Wawrinka played a couple of loose points at the start of the fourth set, Djokovic broke for a 2-0 lead. This, surely, was the start of the comeback. But again, Wawrinka steadied himself, kept to the game plan and pushed home his advantage when Djokovic became tentative again. Tentative is a relative term, though, and Djokovic caught in two minds is still better than some men playing flat out. But, on this day, Wawrinka playing flat out was simply unbeatable. For most of his career he had dared to fail better; yesterday he dared to win.