Rivalries of the year 2013 : Novak Djokovic vs Stanislas Wawrinka

Author : ramnarayanan

Novak Djokovic of Serbia embraces Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland after winning his fourth round match against during day seven of the 2013 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.

For a decade or so, Roger Federer has stood like a banyan tree, impossible to be chopped down by anything. Emerging from the tiny country of Switzerland, he has ruled the tennis world like no one before him. With him achieving so much in the last 10 years, the accomplishments of others have always remained unnoticed or sidelined. However, in the last few years, both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been successful chipping in with important victories and have thus tasted a lion’s share of success in majors, thereby cornering the great Federer. Despite performing pretty ordinarily in the past few seasons (2012 excluded), he is being hailed as the greatest ever to play the game by most of the tennis experts.

Since the task of usurping his status as a revered tennis star is arduous for even those players who have been consistently maintaining a winning head-to-head against him in the last couple of years, it is easy to imagine the plight of the others who have to contend with just a handful of ATP titles to their credit. And if you happen to be a person who represented the same country to which he belongs, then the condition should be even worse. You would forever be living under his shadows hoping desperately for his exit from the game one day. The situation of Stanislas Wawrinka has been quite the same for years together. Not that he would love seeing the retirement of his Swiss counterpart, but the bottom line is that he has found it hard to keep himself in the limelight amidst the commanding presence of the great Federer.

In such a situation, for him to come out of the shadows of the 17-time Grand Slam champion, it was imperative for him to make his presence felt. Gifted with one of the most attractive backhands in the game, he has always had the potential to compete at the highest level. His inconsistency in the execution of his favourite strokes has been the reason for his losses most of the time. The competitive spirit of the big four was never going to let him win any big titles and he would certainly be experiencing a banana skin day somewhere in the middle of the tournament. When such things happen, people do not tend to remember a person who exits the tournament unless he creates something that would stay afresh in people’s minds. Wawrinka did precisely that. He made this year an unforgettable one not only for himself, but also for a whole army of tennis fans.

When one looks back at the 2013 season superficially, he would find nothing to boast about the No.2 Swiss star. In fact he was able to win just a lone ATP title which came at Portugal. Still this was one season which certainly belonged to him in so many ways, if one takes Nadal and Djokovic out of the equation. His accomplishments in 2013 can be summed up by just referring to his epic battles against the incomparable Djokovic.

As a matter of fact, they met each other just four times this year, with the Serb winning all of them. Not even their head-to-head record, previous to the start of the current year, recommended a mouth-watering contest between the two. They had never remained competent rivals and Stan was an underdog each time they played. So everyone was caught unawares when Stan, standing toe to toe with Nole in Australia and New York, produced a couple of daring epics. The intensity of those two battles has been quite unimaginative and unreal to be precise. Having been enamoured by the insane brutality of the combats, we can’t, but help project the clash as one of the best rivalries seen this year.

It all started in Melbourne when the then World No.1 Novak Djokovic, who had a great finish to last year, landed in the fourth round of the Australian Open after breezing past Radek Stepanek in the round of 32. With Nadal still convalescing from injury he was almost certain to capture his third consecutive title at the Rod Laver Arena unless one of the two – Federer and Andy Murray (drawn to play against each other for a slot in the final) – would succeed in applying the brakes on the Serbian accelerator. Wawrinka was not even considered as a player who could take a set of the World No.1, let alone upset the latter. He was regarded as an underdog in every sense.

Generally speaking, Novak Djokovic’s weakness has been his serves (second serves to be exact) whereas the Swiss’ strength lies in his single-handed backhand. So, for Stan to have any realistic chance of forcing an unforeseen victory over his opponent, he needed to consistently ride on his strengths, hoping that the latter’s first serve would desert him through the match. Pleasantly for the Swiss No.2, he ended up getting exactly what he wanted, at least in the first set. Just in the third game of the first set, a wide forehand from the ‘Djoker’ gave the underdog his first break of the match, turning the momentum in his favour very soon.

A couple of majestic forehands helped him in consolidating the break of serve which he earned in the previous game on Nole’s serve. Things went further bad for the three-time champion who had to deal with a double fault and a couple of bad errors which resulted in him losing another service game. At that point, it was quite evident that he was on the verge of surrendering the opening set to his freaky opponent. The Swiss, who was in his best form, gave little chance for Novak to make a comeback as he pocketed the first set after having successfully converted on a third successive break point.

Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka reacts after a point against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic during their men’s singles match on day seven of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 20, 2013.

Djokovic, who was at the receiving end in the early stages of the match, looked totally out of sorts in the second set too and he was battered and bruised by the one-handed backhander from Stan. The underrated Swiss star, true to the adage – “strike while the iron is red hot” – made the most of the opportunities which came his way and surged ahead, to lead 5-2 in the second set. It was then that the Serb, who was almost fast asleep, suddenly woke up invoking an SOS for the first time in the match. He began to sharpen his baseline defense and was able to draw errors from his opponent as a result. He tamed the fatigued Wawrinka in the next four games, breaking him twice in a row. With the momentum swinging in his favour, Djokovic levelled the match at one set apiece by holding his next service game easily.

Service breaks seemed to be the order of the day as Stan fell apart failing to hold his serve one more time and found himself trailing immediately in the third set. However, in the very next game, the Swiss was successful in returning the favour and kept the set in the balance at 1-1. Thereafter, with both players holding serve till the eighth game of the set, it was almost certain that one of them had to make a terrible mistake to hand over a break to the other. The wait was over in the ninth game as the Serb was able to force an error out of his adversary thereby gaining a break to serve for the set at 5-4. Making no further mistakes, the World No.1 cleaned up the third set providing heartbreak for Stan and his followers.

With Djokovic just a set away from gaining an entry into the quarter final, the Swiss had to pull up his socks. Stan dealt with the predicament wisely and made sure that the set went to the tie-breaker. Lady Luck smiled at the underdog for the first time as he raced to a 1-0 lead in the tie break by winning a timely challenge. Both players traded mini-breaks after having changed ends and it was left to Stan to serve for the set at 5-6. Wawrinka finished off the fourth set with a winner which circumvented the baseline retrieving abilities of Djokovic.

It was then that both played a set which was arguably the best witnessed this year. The decider saw it all. Starting with trading breaks in the first two games of the set, it had everything in it which took us to the edge of our seats. The players held serve at love at times while also being tested many a time at  deuce. Both went for the kill though, despite looking extremely tired. While Djokovic improved his net game plus forehand, Stan reduced his unforced errors considerably as the set progressed. Both were saving themselves admirably standing on the threshold of defeat.

Finally the Serb, who was slightly better prepared mentally, broke Stan in the 22nd game of the final set to win the most absorbing contest ever witnessed this year. It was a sad moment for Wawrinka who came very close to shocking the Serb. But it was close and it was anybody’s ball game for most of the match. Only one of them could move to the quarterfinals, but the vanquished Swiss stole the hearts of all who watched.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia rips his shirt off as he celebrates winning in five sets in his fourth round match against Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland during day seven of the 2013 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia

It would be an understatement if someone said that it was this match which made him scale greater heights as a player in 2013. His performances in the remaining Grand Slams kept on improving since that epic “Down Under.” Fittingly so, he got another opportunity to play a hair-raising match against Djokovic towards the end of the season when he locked horns with the Serb in the semifinal of the US Open. If anything, he had to prove to the world that it was no fluke when he stretched the Serb to the limit at Melbourne Park.

The US Open semifinal between the two started exactly the same way as their of the fourth round encounter at the Australian Open. The Swiss broke Djokovic in the third game of the set as he did in Australia. He, in fact, broke him again to win the next two games, before giving one of the two breaks back to the Serb. However Stan redeemed himself and broke the 2011 champion one more time to win the first set 6-2. After having lost the opening set, Djokovic was fortunate to have just the type of start he required to gain some momentum in the second set as he held his first service game with a love hold. In the fifth game of the set though, Wawrinka, produced some unbelievable stroke play, to break the Serb and go 3-2 up.

Nole pressed the panic button just at the right time though and began to serve well for the first time in the match. In the eighth game, a couple of unforced errors from the Swiss helped Djokovic make a comeback in the second set as he raced to a 5-4 lead by virtue of serving ahead, though he was a break down earlier. Stan managed to stay in the set by serving better in the next two games and dragged the contest to a tie-breaker. Playing the important points well, the Serb took the set and leveled the match at one set apiece.

Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland celebrates a point during his men’s singles semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the 2013 US Open on September 7, 2013.

Stan, now showing some weariness, was on the verge of getting broken by the Serb in the first game of the third set, which would have proved disastrous for the Swiss No.2. The one-handed backhander however, survived the scare and led 1-0. It was going well for both players who were holding their respective serves with ease until the eighth game of the set which saw the 10th ranked Swiss play a couple of unbelievable returns that proved to be decisive. He took the third set 6-3 and found himself just a set away in reaching his first Grand Slam final. No matter how good you are, it is quite common for anyone to get nervous when he or she is just an inch closer to achieving a landmark. Probably the same thing has happened to Stan too. He even left the court for treatment after having been broken in the fourth set. The relentless Serb won the set without much fuss and sweat and took the match to the decider.

The fifth set though, did not produce a thriller of a contest like what we saw in Australia. The Swiss looked in no mood to go for a kill and was in a subdued state, leaving destiny to take care of the rest. The defending champion was impeccable in the set and was determined to cut short the duration of the match. In the end it was Novak Djokovic, the fitter of the two, who survived the marathon and as per Darwin’s theory, emerged supreme after a grueling contest.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia hugs Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland after winning his men’s singles semifinal match at the 2013 US Open on September 7, 2013. Djokovic defeated Wawrinka 2-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3 6-4.

These two have since become friends and have even played doubles together. The most important ingredient for a rivalry to blossom is the mutual respect that two players have for each other. That mutual respect, in turn, is the byproduct of intensely close battles that two people engage in whenever they collide. Stan and Nole’s rivalry is one of its kind. The two have played their heart out both in Melbourne Park and New York, making it only the second best rivalry of this season, next only to Nadal and Djokovic. No one now remembers Stan’s other defeats this year, thanks to the special matches with which the Serb was able to supplement the Swiss.