Stan Wawrinka is playing a numbers game these days… and not very successfully.
The number 24 belongs to Kobe Bryant. It represents the number of players who do not get byes at a 28-player singles tournament. It is the number of seconds on the shot clock in professional basketball, one second shorter than the serve clock in tennis.
It is also the goal Wawrinka wants to reach by the time the Rome Masters ends.
Wawrinka entered the Monte Carlo Masters ranked No. 36 in the world. As I write this piece on Wednesday morning at 8:12 Seattle time, Wawrinka was No. 33 in the live rankings after winning one match in Monte Carlo against Lucas Pouille. He did not win a second match, losing a 6-0, 2-0 lead and a 6-0, 5-3 lead to Marco Cecchinato in a brutal three-set loss. Wawrinka still has a very good chance of gaining a seeded position for Roland Garros — which means he would avoid a big name in the first two rounds — but the No. 24 is especially important for Stan and, for that matter, the other elites who will come to Paris in search of a deep run.
Remember this about tennis draws at majors: Seeds 1-8 play seeds 25-32 in the round of 32 (the third round). Getting the No. 24 seed would therefore enable Wawrinka to avoid any possibility of playing Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, or Dominic Thiem until the round of 16.
Getting into the top eight of the rankings before Roland Garros was not a realistic goal for Wawrinka. He would have had to thread the needle and win at least one if not two Masters 1000 events leading up to Paris to put himself in that kind of position. That was not a fair expectation — not ever.
The reasonable goal was always to get in that 9 to 24 seed range, vaulting past seeds 25 to 32.
With that Cecchinato win slipping through his fingers, the point is plain for Stan: He can’t keep allowing sets to get away.
The Cecchinato second set was one example. In Miami, Wawrinka had the third set against Filip Krajinovic… until he didn’t. In Indian Wells, Wawrinka did defeat Dan Evans and Marton Fucsovics, but he lost winnable sets in those matches as well. Wawrinka has shown, in spots, that he is still capable of playing at a high level, but the quality comes in concentrated bursts and isn’t as sustained as it once was. The ability to navigate thorny situations — the moments when Wawrinka would point to his head and affirm the mental strength he has developed under Magnus Norman — is not as pronounced as it used to be.
This is how Wawrinka must get to No. 24 before Paris.
No one wants to see Stan in their section of the draw, especially not in the round of 32. If the elites on the ATP Tour want to avoid an R-32 clash with Wawrinka, he better start winning more close sets… and pointing to his head more often. We haven’t seen enough of that in 2019 — not for Stan’s own liking, at any rate.