Stanislas Wawrinka is not known for a shining personality away from a tennis court. When he talks, he stretches his vowels and drawls through sentences, punctuating them only with an ‘ummm.’ Even when handed a trophy, just his fifth career singles title no less, the Swiss wears an expression that screams ‘please, anywhere but here.’ His eyelids droop, his shoulders slump and his nostrils twitch. Snooze.
But place him between tramlines and arm him with a racquet, and watch as a full-blown metamorphosis occurs. Now the bookworm has grown wings. Now Stanislas goes simply by ‘Stan the Man’. Now Mister Jaded feels and moves like Mick Jagger.
On Sunday, during the Chennai Open final against Edouard Roger-Vasselin, the top seed won seemingly lost battles from positions that the crowds in this city were only used to witnessing in cinema halls. Positions that only Superstar Rajinikanth gets out of smiling, with a knife in hand and a cigarette in mouth. Today, at times, Wawrinka often played like Wawrinkanth
The eleventh game of the first set, perhaps the most crucial of this two hour long match, witnessed this transformation. With the game score locked at 5-5 and Wawrinka receiving, he made his move. Until this point, Roger-Vasselin had a clear game plan in mind. Keep the rallies short, don’t engage the Swiss in long baseline rallies and approach the net whenever possible. So, having tossed the ball in the air to recommence proceedings, the Frenchman did just that.
Two crosscourt backhand rallies into the point, Roger-Vasselin charged net-wards. His opponent, however, had different plans. Instead of searching for a passing shot, Wawrinka pulled his wrist back and flicked it northwards, sending the ball deep into the Chennai sky. Roger-Vasellin, having watched the ball soar a mile above him and about the same distance past him, perhaps expected the chair umpire to break the silence with a ‘fifteen, love.’
Only, the ball, seemingly heading towards the stands, suddenly lost momentum, obeyed gravity and dropped limply on the baseline. The terraces whistled even as Wawrinka let out some steam with a gurgling war cry. Roger-Vasselin couldn’t believe his ears. Soon he wouldn’t trust his eyes.
Moment of the match
The next point was undoubtedly the moment of the match and perhaps even the entire championship. Roger-Vasselin, staying well on the baseline now, indulged Wawrinka in a forehand rally. The strokes, which had originated from the middle of the court, had shifted diagonally. Both players had gravitated to their forehand sides and were trading crosscourts. Then it occurred.
Wawrinka, sick of knocking the same stroke, ran around his forehand on the edge of the deuce court, lined up his weaker side for the next hit, coiled up his backhand and catapulted it, against the angle, for an inside-out down-the-line winner. As both Roger-Vasselin and the spectators stared in utter disbelief, Wawrinka swooshed his hair back and stuck a thumb up. Only a cigarette trick went missing.
To put that stroke in perspective, imagine the wristy Mark Waugh, tired of hitting with the spin towards a crowded leg-side field, reverse-flicking one, cross-armed and well against the turn, through covers for four. But again, one must understand that when a tennis player runs around his forehand to play a single-handed backhand, he must either be extremely mad or extremely gifted.
Roger-Vasselin thought he was a bit of both. “When I come ahead, he pass me. When I stay back, he do that. Crazy,” he said after the match. You’ve got to feel for the 52nd ranked player; until that moment he believed that he had the upper hand. “I beat Stan in our previous meeting in Basel last October. And that I did with several net approaches. So the strategy was right, but today he just play much better,” he said.
Indeed he did. Following that outlandish stroke, the match fell apart. Wawrinka, a couple of points later, had the break to go up 6-5 and soon enough was found bossing over the second set.
Tennis coaches will tell you that once you break your opponent early, just focus on your own serves. But Wawrinka, having broken Roger-Vasselin in the very first game of the second, paid little heed to this conservative advice. So when Roger-Vasselin committed a couple of suicidal errors to go down 1-3, 30-40, Wawrinka put his battle-face on for the break point.
The Frenchman served wide to Wawrinka on the ad court, only for it to be sliced right back. Roger-Vasselin chopped and charged ahead for a volley. But at the net, where he had shed many a sweat drop, he slipped and fell. Wawrinka planted his winner and flexed his muscles with a cry, directly over the KO.
For a minute there, Roger-Vasselin must have felt like Sonny Liston in that legendary photograph. Wawrinka, floating through the match like a butterfly, had just stung like Muhammad Ali. But just a few minutes later, when the trophy and the microphone were thrust into his palms, Ali gave way to good ole’ Stanislas Wawrinka again.
In one long drawl, he said: “It’s good to win a title. It’s good to be in Chennai. It’s good that I came back here. It’s good for me and my team. It’s good to prepare well. It’s good that I’ll be back again.” Snooze.