One could call this a three-year plan for Stan at the U.S. Open.
In 2013, Stan Wawrinka played Novak Djokovic in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He lost in five sets, but he won something very important: experience against an elite player in a prolonged battle at the end of a major tournament.
In 2016 and 2019, Wawrinka played Djokovic again in Ashe Stadium.
After Sunday night’s win over Nole, Stan can say that in this three-year series of matchups, he is 2-1 against the World No. 1.
Let’s go back to 2013 to explain why 2016 and 2019 turned out differently for Stan:
Some players could have absorbed that 2013 loss and not recovered from the sting of losing. Some players could have been content to have played such a high-quality major tournament, plateauing and not finding a way to raise the bar in future years.
Wawrinka took the road less traveled. He gained as much from that 2013 loss to Djokovic as one could possibly imagine. In many ways, he has continued to build on that match to establish his legacy and identity as an unorthodox but genuine Tennis Hall of Famer.
Wawrinka’s week-to-week consistency on tour rates nowhere near most of tennis’s memorable champions, but his signature ability to stand up to the big boys every now and then not only wins admirers; far more than that, it has carried him to three major titles, won at three different major tournaments.
It isn’t a normal path to immortality, but that’s precisely the point with Stan: Nothing about him is, or ever has been, normal. He has improbably but genuinely found his own way to carve out an immensely significant place in the story of tennis.
He reminded everyone why on Sunday night against Novak Djokovic.
Yes, Wawrinka made a big statement earlier this year in the fourth round of a major. He defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in over five hours at Roland Garros, saving break points left and right. Wawrinka survived long stretches in which his opponent carried the run of play.
Wawrinka spent a lot of the 2019 Roland Garros tournament saving break points and serving huge in big moments. This was — and is — the knack Wawrinka has brought to big-stage moments in his career. Not the Masters 1000s, not the ATP 500s, but the majors, where he has said he enjoys the spaciousness of the best-of-five format and can work off rust in the first week.
In the second week, Stan’s strokes aren’t just more lubricated; they are replicated in important situations. There is a Grand Canyon-size difference between replicating strokes in general, and replicating under immense situational pressure.
Wawrinka has developed the muscle memory an athlete needs in times of stress. That last detail is what separates him from Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and so many others who have not yet claimed even one major title, let alone three.
As impressive as it was for Wawrinka to fend off Tsitsipas, let’s be plain about the matter, especially with Tsitsipas (understandably) fading in the second half of the 2019 season: Beating Tsitsipas and beating Djokovic are two different tasks… even with Djokovic struggling due to a shoulder injury.
We have seen Djokovic and Roger Federer struggle in the early weeks of the U.S. Open in recent years, for various health-or-wellness-based reasons.
Federer had back spasms at the start of the 2017 U.S. Open and didn’t begin to feel more comfortable until midway through the tournament (and he still wasn’t pain-free). He was stymied by the heat index and the stagnant air in his 2018 U.S. Open loss.
Djokovic struggled physically in the 2016 U.S. Open. He struggled with the heat in 2018. He struggled with his shoulder here.
Yet, it is not an idle coincidence that only one man — in both 2016 and now 2019 — was able to stop Djokovic in New York.
It is the man who learned so much from the first of the “three-year-plan” matches against Nole in Flushing Meadows.
Stan Wawrinka is still getting mileage from a 2013 defeat he has converted into a very efficient and long-lasting form of fuel.