How Wawrinka learned to win
Series of tough losses have taught stealth Swiss to take positive approach
Originally Published: September 17, 2013
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com
It's not often that a player chooses his own epigram, let alone gets it tattooed it on his left arm.
But it would be tough to sum up Stanislas Wawrinka's season more lyrically than with the words Wawrinka himself chose from Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett earlier this year -- "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better."
"In tennis, as you know, if [you] are not Roger [Federer] or Rafa [Nadal] and [Novak] Djokovic or Andy [Murray] now, you don't win so many tournaments and you always lose," the 28-year-old from Lausanne, Switzerland, said at the US Open. "But you need to take the positive of the loss, and you need to go back to work and still [keep] playing."
Perhaps no player this year has failed better than Wawrinka, who has come up with some stunning performances -- if not always victories.
It all began with his memorable five-set loss to Djokovic at the Australian Open, still a top contender for the match of the year. (Nadal versus Djokovic at the French Open, Wawrinka versus Richard Gasquet at the French Open and Djokovic versus Wawrinka II at the US Open would be among the others.)
In that fourth-round match in Oz, Wawrinka stormed out of the blocks to take a 6-1, 5-2 lead against the top seed, but just as impressive was the way he battled back after losing the second and third sets. He rebounded to win a tight fourth-set tiebreaker and stayed with Djokovic all the way to 12-10 in the fifth. His aggressive shot-making and bold winners sustained over four hours were a revelation.
With his full-swinging one-handed backhand, Wawrinka had also developed a reputation for inconsistency and letting the occasion get to him. Despite losing the match, he was feted in defeat.
That would be the case again two weeks later, as he and Marco Chiudinelli lost 24-22 in the fifth to Tomas Berdych and Lukas Rosol in a Davis Cup doubles match, allowing the Czechs to hand Switzerland a first-round defeat. At 7 hours, 1 minute, it was the longest Davis Cup match on record. Then came a nervy, three-set defeat at Indian Wells to a hurting Roger Federer, in whose shadows Wawrinka has spent most of his career.
It was after that defeat that Wawrinka tweeted the quotation that has come to define his season. "It stuck with me," he said later.
By spring, the words were inscribed on his skin, though for him their meaning clearly ran deeper. It was the message he had given himself and had been given by his Davis Cup teammates and friends ever since that match against Djokovic.
"A few tough losses at the beginning of the year, but we always said, 'Look, the most important is what you do with that situation,'" said Swiss captain Severin Luthi, who has provided coaching support to Wawrinka. "If you react negative and you go into a mental hole, you won't progress. You have to accept the positive and negative out of it and try to improve; that's all you can do.
"And he was very disciplined in that direction."
Getting to this point had already been a long journey for Wawrinka. Although he wasn't regarded as much of a prospect for most of his junior days, his ranking reached No. 9 in 2008 before slipping outside the top 20 during the next two years. During that time, he married girlfriend Ilham Vuilloud and the couple had a daughter, Alexia.
In a bid to climb back up the rankings in 2010, Wawrinka hired Peter Lundgren, former coach of Federer and Marat Safin, and shortly afterward, Wawrinka upset Andy Murray on his way to the US Open quarterfinals. As 2011 began, news came that Wawrinka was also leaving his wife and daughter, with Vuilloud saying Wawrinka wanted to focus more on his career. By the end of the year, however, Wawrinka split with Lundgren, and last year publicly reunited with his family, embracing his role as a father and getting Alexia's name tattooed on his hand.
But he remained coachless for a year and a half until former French Open finalist Magnus Norman, who now has an academy and previously worked with Robin Soderling, was finally persuaded to come on board this April.
"During that year he had nobody when he stopped with Peter, so he went on a few tournaments alone -- when I could help him, I helped him," Luthi said. "I think that was also helpful for him to learn more about himself.
"But I think it's good he has again someone who he really knows he can rely on."
While new coach Norman has done some tactical and technical work with Wawrinka, he says his main effort has been mental.
"Already before I was starting, he was playing well in Australia," said the former No. 2 at the US Open. "And obviously Stan has been a top, top player for many years, around 20, but in order to have a better ranking you have to perform well in the big tournaments, and he's been a little bit of an underachiever, I think, in the big tournaments before. He's been maybe a little bit nervous and not believing in himself really.
"The most important thing we're trying to work on is confidence. Because Stan is a very nice guy but sometimes a little insecure. We've been speaking a lot about how to handle when he's feeling nervous, and in difficult situations in big tournaments.
''It's not really any secret. It's trying to convince him and make him believe in himself."
Increasingly, it seems to be working. Shortly after Norman agreed to sign on, Wawrinka won the ATP event in Estoril -- an actual victory, finally, and one he points to as important for his confidence. In Madrid, his first official tournament with Norman, Wawrinka reached the final, losing to Nadal. He then came from two sets down to defeat Gasquet in the French Open before again losing to Nadal in the quarterfinals.
The big breakthrough, however, came at the US Open, where Wawrinka defeated No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych and defending champion Murray to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal -- before falling to Djokovic in five sets, again. Like Australia, Wawrinka started by going up a set and a break, but this time led by two sets to one and won a marathon 21-minute game at the beginning of the fifth despite struggling with a leg injury. Failing better, indeed.
His confident ballstriking against the biggest names was what stood out the most. Reflecting on his match earlier in the tournament against Murray, which he won in straight sets without allowing a single break point, Wawrinka said he was pleased with the way he dealt with the pressure.
"Normally I can be a little bit nervous and I can lose few games because of that, but today I was just focus on my game," he said.
Luthi feels the improvements can be seen day to day as well.
"His basic level is better," he said. ''I think he has less really bad matches. And even if he doesn't play great one day, his level doesn't drop as much as before, so that's really positive and that give him the base to play the big guys and play those big matches. I think that's where he really improved."
The question now is where Wawrinka goes from here. His efforts this year have taken him back to No. 10 in the world, and he will spend the next couple of months trying to reach the top eight and secure a spot in the season-ending World Tour Finals in London. His main rival for the last spot at the event is none other than Federer, and the result is also likely to decide who ends the year as the highest-ranked player in Switzerland -- a startling development given that Federer began the year firmly entrenched in the top four and Wawrinka was stationed well outside the top 10.
But Wawrinka is no longer an afterthought, in or out of Switzerland, and showed at the US Open that he can go toe-to-toe with anyone these days. Keep this up, and he might soon have to give succeeding a try.