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Australian Open: Wawrinka crashes the Big Four

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Online Sport Editor Matt Bugler offers his thoughts on Stanislas Wawrinka’s maiden Grand Slam championship.

Wawrinka's forehand is one of the biggest on tour. Photo: zimbio.com
Wawrinka’s forehand is one of the biggest on tour. Photo: zimbio.com

The ranking system in tennis has its peculiarities; as of Monday Andy Murray is ranked number six in the world and a resurgent Roger Federer languishes in eighth. However, based on his magnificent Australian Open triumph, Stanislas Wawrinka is not at all out of place as the new world number three.

Just over a year ago, the idea would have been inconceivable. Coming into last year’s Australian Open, Wawrinka was a solid top twenty player with just three career titles to his name, and at 27 years old running out of time to leave a real mark on the game.

An epic defeat to Novak Djokovic in the fourth round seemed to have a similar effect as Andy Murray’s defeat to the same man a year earlier, in providing an injection of belief that he could go the distance with the top players and reach the latter rounds of the slams. A clay court season where he was arguably the best player behind Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and a straight sets demolition of Murray at the US Open, where he lost another epic to Djokovic in his first Grand Slam semi-final, confirmed that he was having by far his best year on tour.

None of this compares to winning the Australian Open by beating the top two players in the world en route. The final was somewhat disappointingly a farcical affair in the end, with Nadal never previously experiencing back problems, but allowing his reputation of blaming injury in his defeats to get the better of him.

At a set and a break down he was being blown off the court yet moving freely, and a possible attempt to play mind games with his opponent worked for the third set, where Wawrinka fell to of the hardest challenges in tennis; staying focused against a player playing at a slow, restricted pace.

Federer may be playing well but he has been replaced as the Swiss No. 1. Photo: zimbio.com
Federer may be playing well but he has been replaced as the Swiss No. 1. Photo: zimbio.com

There are two ways to beat Nadal; one is to be Novak Djokovic and win at his own baseline attrition game. The other is to power past him in Lukas Rosol-esque fashion by smashing winners and denying him the time on the ball that he so desires. Nadal may have been complaining this tournament about the increased speed of the courts, but for the spectators it is incredibly refreshing seeing a new face win a major playing a different style of tennis to the customary long rallies at the back of the court.

Indeed, for the first set and the start of the second, Wawrinka was zoning, taking the ball extremely early and neutralising the looping topspin of Nadal. His single-handed backhand is one of the best in the game, but is forehand is almost equally damaging, and countless times he took the ball on the rise from close to the baseline to fire past the Spaniard. With a potent serve that struck 19 aces in the final and a solid volley, he boasts a fine all round game that is as effective on his favourite surface clay as it is on a fast hard court.

He proved against Djokovic that he is also happy to duel from the baseline, and the numerous break points he saved in long rallies against the four-time Melbourne champion was testament to his refusal to lie down. If the return is a slight weakness, where Wawrinka has the tendency like his compatriot Federer to just chip the ball back into play, then he suffered no similar travails against Nadal on Sunday. The return game at the start of the second set was sublime, where he completed a love break with a backhand return winner off the sliced leftie serve that has troubled Federer so much over the years.

The display of strength and skill must come down partly to the influence of coach Magnus Norman, who has been as effective as Ivan Lendl is to Murray. The difference is that Murray was always expected to win Grand Slams, while Wawrinka was always in the shadow of another Swiss. He may be two months shy of his 29th birthday, but with the average age of the top 100 much higher than it was a decade ago, he still has a few years to potentially add to his Grand Slam collection and confirm his place as third best player in the world.

Dimitrov and Bouchard lead a new generation

Li Na's backhand in motion. Photo: india.com
Li Na’s backhand in motion. Photo: india.com

Li Na is a merited winner of the Australian Open, having lost in the final twice before, and carrying the burden of the whole of China’s expectations on her back. Her smooth technique and backhand which may be the best in the women’s game complement her ebullient personality and sense of humour, which she displayed in the victory speech at the expense of her jovial husband.

Like Wawrinka, she was a late bloomer, winning her first Slam at the French Open in 2011 at the age of 29, and with fellow veteran Serena Williams leading the women’s game, the pattern of experience triumphing over youth seems to be translating equally to the WTA tour.

This may give hope to 24 year old Agnieszka Radwanska, who missed another huge opportunity to win her first Grand Slam. Like Wimbledon last year, she saw top players around her dropping like flies, only to blame fatigue on her semi-final defeat to Dominika Cibulkova, just as she did against Sabine Lisicki at SW19. Radwanska can be the most entertaining player on the tour, and her bageling of Victoria Azarenka was a delightful mix of artistry and disguise, but if she can’t last seven best-of-three matches in a fortnight then drastic changes need to be made to her training regime.

Along with the likes of Sloane Stephens and Laura Robson, Eugenie Bouchard leads the new generation of female players, and on the evidence of this tournament, she boasts the biggest chance of becoming the first major winner of the group. The Canadian feels at home on the centre stage, and her physical and mental prowess only needs to be put through more matches to finish developing. Bouchard should be top ten by the end of the year, and has all the potential to be the new face of the game.

In the men’s game, fans have been waiting patiently for a long time for Grigor Dimitrov to really break through. He threatened to at times last year, most notably in his victory over Djokovic at the Madrid Open, but repeatedly found his lack of stamina in the best-of-five matches to be his downfall.

A run to the quarters of Australia this year, where he won the first set against Nadal and probably should have gone two sets to one up, has hopefully announced his arrival on the main stage. At 22, “Baby Fed” is comparatively young to the top ten players, and will have plenty of time to turn into the player that L’Equipe predicted would be world number one by 2018.

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