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The People’s Champion

In striving to fail better, Stan Wawrinka inspires us all.

Satyam Viswanathan Stan Wawrinka.

Conventional wisdom tells us that in the brutally competitive world of international sport, every little edge counts. Tennis’ big four — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray — have consistently intimidated opposition with their sartorial choices, physical conditioning, and daunting stroke play. Haunted eyes, fuchsia pink shorts, and prominent tattoos that announce to the world your greatest vulnerability certainly do not a champion make. But then there’s nothing remotely conventional about tennis’ late-career bloomer, Stan Wawrinka.

In 2013, so broken was Wawrinka from a lifetime spent in the shadow of his over-achieving countryman (and childhood rival) Federer, so distraught was he at having nothing to show for almost 29 years of a life committed to tennis, that he decided to burn into his skin a reminder. He chose to tattoo on his left arm the fatalistic, wrenching words of Irish writer Samuel Beckett — “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”

At the US Open four years ago, Wawrinka had mused: “In tennis, as you know, if you are not Roger [Federer] or Rafa [Nadal] or [Novak] Djokovic or Andy [Murray] now, you don’t win so many tournaments and you always lose.” It is a sentiment widely shared by his generation of tennis players who have played their entire careers without an opportunity to win tennis’ biggest prizes because of the utter dominance of the so-called Big Four.

Today, however, with the 2016 US Open trophy in his closet, Wawrinka has won as many Grand Slams as Andy Murray and is in the form of his life.

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His is an inspirational story of learning to accept the cards that life has dealt you, and playing your hand to the best of your ability, even if it that means that all you’ll ever do is fail better. By embracing his fears and exposing his vulnerabilities, Wawrinka has emerged as one of tennis’, and sports’, most unlikely and inspirational heroes.

Roddick who lost all three Wimbledon finals he featured in to Roger Federer and Malaysia’s badminton star Lee Chong Wee who finished with silver at the biggest stages a heart breaking six times (across three Olympics and three World Championships) have folded in traumatic fashion when faced with rivals who they felt cursed to be in the same generation as. Not Wawrinka. He kept his chin up, converted his curse into a motivational tattoo, and conquered his demons to emerge a winner.

Certainly the Swede Magnus Norman has played a huge role in Wawrinka’s transformation. Before they started working together in 2013, Wawrinka had played in 36 Grand Slams and failed to reach even one semi-final. Since then, he has won three slams, and risen to become the No 3 ranked player in the world. Five minutes before the start of this Sunday’s US Open final, nerves caused Wawrinka to break down in tears while speaking to Norman. Yet he tapped into his new found mental reserves to overcome a nervy start and prevail. And then during his acceptance speech, Wawrinka acknowledged the role that Djokovic has played in his growth (as a frequent practice partner and friend). Voice cracking, he said to Djokovic, “Because of you, I am where I am today.”

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It’s precisely this kind of unvarnished vulnerability that makes Wawrinka — as his manager says — “the people’s champion, someone very approachable, (someone that) people maybe see themselves in him.”

Even the nicknames that Wawrinka has earned in recent years — Stan the Man and the Stanimal — are light-hearted rather than deferential. Wawrinka may not take himself seriously, or see himself in historical terms, but with only Wimbledon remaining for him to complete a career Grand Slam he is now part of the game’s elite. Far from failing better, Wawrinka is today certain to become a tennis Hall-of-Famer. We are fortunate to have witnessed the grace and grit with which this ordinary man has found his path in the face of extraordinary odds.

First published on: 14-09-2016 at 12:06:30 am
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