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Stanislas Wawrinka faces mission impossible against Rafael Nadal in Australian Open final

Sunday, 26 January 2014 - 12:19pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Unassuming Swiss is a huge underdog in today's final, but his raw power can could unsettle Nadal.
  • Reuters

To gauge the gulf that separates the Australian Open finalists on Sunday, look at how Stanislas Wawrinka spent his rest day. On Friday, this sleepy-eyed, unassuming character wandered down alone to the James Bond exhibition at the Melbourne Museum, where he took snapshots of the famous Aston Martin DB5. Just another tourist enjoying his time in one of the world's great cities?

Admittedly Wawrinka attracted a few second glances, and even the odd autograph request. But imagine the scene if Rafael Nadal had turned up unannounced and unaccompanied. It would have been bedlam. When the players take the court this morning - the first ball should be hit sometime between 8.45am and 9am - Wawrinka's best chance will be to maintain his happy-go-lucky attitude. And why not? Anyone would think that his Australian Open had been a holiday.

When others were collapsing in the first-week heatwave, he received the nearest thing to a free ride. His opening opponent, Andrey Golubev, retired midway through the second set and Vasek Pospisil did not even report for their third-round match because of a back injury. Then, when temperatures dropped in the second week, Wawrinka's hand got hot. He eliminated Novak Djokovic - a man who had not lost on Rod Laver Arena since 2010 - in an eyeballs-out five-setter. He out-clutched Tomas Berdych in a heavy-hitting semi-final. Coming into the final, he has walloped 249 winners, the highest total of the tournament and 70 more than Nadal. He will need plenty more today, for he faces the toughest assignment in modern tennis.

How do you beat Nadal - a man who invariably plays better as a tournament goes on - in a grand slam final? The world No1 has been in this position 18 times before, and only two men have defied him: Roger Federer, at his absolute peak on the grass of Wimbledon, and Novak Djokovic during his inspired period from the summer of 2011 to the spring of 2012. A man who refuses to accept second place, Nadal eventually powered his way through both these roadblocks. His growing confidence at the net, and on the backhand slice, helped him end Federer's Wimbledon reign in perhaps the greatest tennis match played: the 2008 final.

Four years later, the challenges of Djokovic on hard and clay courts produced another reaction. Nadal and his uncle Toni went back to the practice court and developed a supercharged forehand down the line. "It used to be a redirection, a shot to set up the next one," the experienced coach and broadcaster Darren Cahill said of this latest weapon. "Now it's an outright winner, and it's a scary shot."

Ever wondered how the "big four" have maintained such pre-eminence over the past five years? One answer is that they keep pecking away at each other's weaknesses and forcing each other to improve. In Nadal's case, the result is a tennis leviathan with few, if any, blemishes. When he is fully fit and focused, it is becoming harder and harder to beat him. "I've never seen anything like it," Pete Sampras, who watched Nadal in person for the first time last week, said in an interview with the BBC.

"The movement that he has is incredible, he is able to adjust his shots on the run. He is mentally tough, he has the whole package. I mean he is not looking at 14 [grand slams], he is looking beyond. Realistically he could get 17, 18 majors and he is a credit to the sport. I'm a fan." This is the task that lies before Wawrinka in the final today. Variously known as "Stan the Man" or "Stanimal", he is an engagingly understated fellow who has dealt comfortably with life as Federer's understudy. Yet he would not seem the type to be overawed by the occasion, for he shares with Nadal a balanced and grounded view of life. Wawrinka's parents run an organic farm near Lausanne, where they employ troubled children and others suffering from mental and physical disabilities.

As a man who has worked with the vulnerable as well as the athletic elite, he has a broader view of the world than many professionals. Could Wawrinka's unusual roundedness explain his slow but steady progress up the rankings? He dipped into the top 10 for a few weeks in 2008, but it is only since last April - when he teamed up with coach Magnus Norman - that the results have really begun to flow. When the next set of figures are released, he will be either No3, if he wins, or No5 in the world. "Stan believes in himself now," his manager, Lawrence Frankopan, said.

"Magnus made him see that there is another level, another gear to his game. "Confidence is huge in this sport and he is starting to feel comfortable in the second week of a slam, the time when there are fewer people in the locker-room. The big stage is where he belongs." Here endeth the good news for Wawrinka. The bad news, once again, is that he is playing Nadal - a man who is on course, at his present rate of progress, to become the most decorated male tennis player in history. If the Swiss is beginning to feel that sense of belonging that Frankopan spoke of, Nadal has had it ever since he announced himself at the age of 16 by spanking Alberto Costa, the reigning French Open champion, on the clay courts of Monte Carlo.

How, then, will Wawrinka deal with this hardest of targets - and a man he has yet to take a set off in 12 previous meetings? He might wish he had collected Oddjob's bowler hat from the Melbourne Museum, as it would be particularly lethal when propelled with the glorious, sweeping motion of his single-handed backhand. Ironically, though, Wawrinka's backhand is likely to be his biggest problem today, beautiful sight though it is. Nadal regularly pulverises single-handers by looping high, heavy-spinning forehands that bounce up around their ears.

The tactic worked against Federer on Friday and it must be heavily favoured to work again today. Wawrinka will need Bond-like survival instincts to escape his likely doom.




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