When Stanislas Wawrinka steps on the Suzanne-Lenglen court on Wednesday to take on Marin Cilic, the third seed will be a clear favourite. Not just because he is the higher seed but also because he has emerged as a surefire contender each time he plays a Major. His record in the last few years speaks for itself, but for the longest time this wasn’t the case.
Wawrinka was the Swiss No 2, Roger Federer’s doubles partner, the owner of one of the most beautiful one-handed backhands in the game, and a completely wacky Twitter user. But he wasn’t a Grand Slam winner – not just in the eyes of others but in his own too. However, when Magnus Norman took over, things changed for good.
Before talking at length about the present, let’s rewind a bit, specifically to the fourth round of the 2013 Australian Open. Wawrinka had taken on the (then) three-time champion Novak Djokovic and had almost ousted him, before the two-time reigning titlist straightened his waywardness in the fifth set to get the win.
What happened during the first four sets in that match caught everyone by surprise – as it still does. To Wawrinka, who had then suffered his 10th consecutive loss to Djokovic, it was a heart-breaking loss but to Magnus Norman, who had just taken his place in Wawrinka’s camp as his newly-appointed coach at the start of the season, it was all part of the slow build-up to take his wards into the upper echelons of the tennis world.
It took some convincing on Norman’s part but eventually Wawrinka became a believer too. Not just in Norman but his own greater destiny. In an interview with the New York Times, Norman (who once coached Robin Soderling as well) explained just what he had done:
“I think maybe the main thing I changed about both Robin and Stan is the mental aspect. Robin was a guy who was wasting a lot of energy on things that were not about his tennis. It could be spectators or his opponent, could be the sun or the wind. And I think I did a good job with that. I think the same with Stan, who always has been a little bit nervous and a little bit soft when it came to tough matches.”
Identifying the problem is one thing and working out a solution is quite another. Norman saw what happened and he went about trying to solve things in as positive a manner as possible. There were technical changes – Wawrinka’s footwork when hitting the forehand was altered as was the focus. Instead of trying go for the lines, the Swiss star was urged to go for bigger targets – giving him more leeway, allowing him to go for more spin and power.
These title-runs are important in themselves. Equally significant has then been the consistency that Norman has brought out of the Swiss who, for long, had remained in the shadows of his countryman – Roger Federer.
Not that their partnership has been a fail-safe against losses, with Wawrinka enduring first round losses at Wimbledon in 2013 and at Roland Garros in 2014. But, these defeats have also been marked by immediate turnarounds of success, include a greater proportion of semi-final and quarter-final finishes instead of the bloated number of premature exits he had had in the days prior to his working with the Swede.
Before 2013, going back to the last five years, the Lausanne-native struggled to reach the second round of the Slams, with his best results coming at the US Open in 2010 and at the Australian Open in 2011, when he reached the quarter-finals. Promising as his starts then used to be, his defeats also came about in a quickfire manner and entirely contradictory to him being one-half of the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ winning pair and a top-10 player to boot.
Aside of him garnering results, a noteworthy aspect of these years of Wawrinka’s professional resurgence has been his self-stylised acknowledging of his wins – by raising his index finger to his temple. This gesture of his has come to be interpreted as his way of demonstrating his perseverance and self-belief, in getting past tough opponents and the tougher matchups.
In a way, it also serves as an indicator of the core element of Norman’s influence in his career. Of finally helping him realise that he always had it in him to be among the best players in the world by honing his erratic tenacity through his already bankable game.