by Matt Roberts
Long gone are the days of teenage megastars in tennis. While the likes of Tracy Austin, Martina Hingis and Michael Chang all have their names fixed in tennis folklore for their adolescent exploits, this is the age of the late-bloomer. Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka, last week’s US Open singles champions, are the embodiments of this trend. Kerber, 28, won her second slam of the year in New York and Wawrinka, 31, is now a three-time slam winner, with the trio of successes all coming after his 28th birthday.
It would be an unnecessary glorification to say that Kerber and Wawrinka have poetically followed the same path to success, but their career arcs are undeniably similar.
First of all, it was about being noticed. Wawrinka had to emerge from a Roger Federer shaped shadow, an almost impossible task given the scale and speed of Federer’s success. Meanwhile Kerber was part of a quartet of talented Germans tasked with trying to replicate some of Steffi Graf’s achievements. Out of the group which also included Sabine Lisicki, Andrea Petkovic and Julia Goerges, Kerber was probably the least hyped. Essentially, the pair were co-stars of their respective tours, reaching the occasional slam quarter-final, picking up titles and maintaining a steady ranking inside the world’s top-20. They were enjoying good but unspectacular careers.
Next, it was about wanting more.
For Wawrinka, that moment came earlier. In 2013 he began working with respected coach Magnus Norman, a man who had propelled Robin Soderling to consecutive French Open finals. That year saw a marked improvement in Wawrinka’s results: he pushed Novak Djokovic to 12-10 in the fifth in Australia, reached the Roland Garros quarter-final for the first time, and contested his maiden slam semi-final at the US Open. The signs were there that Wawrinka was becoming a more consistent threat. But even then, few could have anticipated the heights he’s now reached.
It was around this time that Wawrinka got a tattoo on his left forearm, with the words of poet Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The message became poignant at the 2014 Australian Open, when Wawrinka avenged his 2013 defeat to Djokovic with a thrilling five set quarter-final win over the Serb, before going on to beat World No.1 Rafael Nadal in the final. Wawrinka had always been capable of electrifying tennis, but never before had we witnessed his thunder-crack groundstrokes hit with such conviction.
It took eighteen months for Wawrinka to do it again. But it was worth the wait. From a set down in the 2015 French Open final against a peaking Djokovic, Wawrinka entered unchartered territory in terms of baseline hitting. The Swiss is built like an Ox, barrel-chested and powerful, and for three consecutive sets, he unloaded a fusillade of groundstrokes that obliterated the Djokovic defences and carried him to his second major title. Still not the man for all moments, but Stan had undeniably become the man for the big moments.
Kerber’s ascent has been more sudden and, since its start in January this year, more consistent. It’s hard to determine the exact point she went from grinder to world-beater. Unlike Wawrinka there was no change of coach, no gradual accumulation of improved results. Instead, we might look to the first round of this year’s Australian Open. Kerber entered the event in good form having reached the final in Brisbane, but found herself match point down in the opening round to the diminutive Misaki Doi. After coming back from the brink to beat her Japanese opponent, Kerber played the rest of the event with house money, fearlessly beating the tournament favourites Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams en route to the title.
While she suffered a brief, but not unexpected, dip in form after that success, Kerber soon regrouped with a title in Stuttgart, and over the summer she reached a hat-trick of finals at Wimbledon, Rio and Cincinnati. By now, she was established as the World No.2 and targeting Serena Williams’ top spot.
And so how fitting that Kerber and Wawrinka, after almost parallel careers and identical displays of perseverance and resolve, should both be crowned champions at last week’s US Open.
Kerber’s game in full flow is captivating. On the one hand, the pillars of it are her exceptional movement and court coverage; she’s a wonderful defender, but she’s no longer a defensive player. Instead she plays with craft, generating angles only lefties can. One of the hardest skills in tennis is to redirect the ball from the baseline, a task Kerber performs with ease off her world-class backhand wing. Her forehand, hit with an unusually straight arm and hardly a technician’s dream, defies odds and doesn’t break down. Off court Kerber is charming and popular, but in 2016 she’s added a German ruthlessness to her tennis, which was apparent all fortnight in New York; she coasted through to the final at Flushing Meadows without dropping a set, being pushed to just one tie-break in six matches.
In the final, she met Karolina Pliskova. The 21-year-old Czech, full of promise and big serves, was enjoying a career-best tournament. But Kerber grabbed the first set, which usually spells trouble for opponents; she was riding a perfect 44-0 record in 2016 after winning the opening stanza. To her credit, Pliskova battled and played herself into a winning position up 3-1 in the decider. But here the momentum swung in Kerber’s favour. With plenty in the tank after such a straightforward first six matches, Kerber dug deep, breaking her tiring opponent and levelling the match at 3-3. After a shot of the tournament contender at 30-30 in the seventh game found the sideline, an aggressive blow she wouldn’t have attempted last year, it felt like this was Kerber’s match. And so it proved when Pliskova finally blinked, playing a poor service game to hand an emotional Kerber the title. The German had already been guaranteed ownership of the World No.1 ranking following Serena’s semi-final loss, but victory in the final cemented her status as the world’s best player.
Wawrinka, meanwhile, needed Kerber’s survival instinct from Australia. In the third round, the Swiss saved a match point in the fourth set tie-break against Solihull’s Dan Evans. The pinpoint backhand winner must have been liberating and stirring, because for the rest of the tournament his level of play was far higher. In suffocating humidity, Wawrinka opted to make the remainder of his matches physical. This worked against an exhausted Del Potro in the last eight; and again versus the ever-brittle Nishikori in the last four. But would it work against the elastic Djokovic in the final?
In truth, this wasn’t Djokovic at his best; still elastic, but lacking his usual resilience after a summer marred by injury and personal problems. Yet he was still good enough to reach the final – thanks in part to conveyor belt of injured opponents – and he took the first set 7-6. Djokovic is the game’s great frontrunner – before the contest he had won 123 of his last 124 matches after winning the first set, the exception being the 2015 Roland Garros final against Wawrinka. This was vital. Most players – including Murray and Federer – have no past success to cling to if they fall behind against Djokovic. But Wawrinka knows that once he gets going, and he showed signs of getting going towards the end of the first set, he is the one man whose groundstrokes can knock Djokovic back.
When Djokovic plays Murray, the rallies are linear and Djokovic’s superior groundstrokes eventually take over. Wawrinka, on the other hand, can get Djokovic scampering, largely thanks to his uncoiling backhand. Just as in Melbourne 2014, and just as in Paris last year, Wawrinka gained control of Sunday’s final at the start of the second set. A bit like his career, he started slowly before taking off. Down two sets to one, Djokovic appeared physically spent. Facing break point, his decision to serve and volley – the most unnatural of plays for this baseline hogger – hinted at a scrambled mind and a fatigued body. That’s a testament to Wawrinka.
It was surprising to hear Stan talk of locker room tears moments before the final. But crucially, he replaces vulnerability with authority in the big moments on court, repeatedly pointing to his temple to signal his determination and focus. The fourth set simmered with tension as Djokovic took a medical timeout before a Wawrinka service. Rightly irritated, the Swiss just about managed to keep calm and continue his surge to the title.
This was Wawrinka’s 11th consecutive final win, 12 if you include the Davis Cup, an outstanding streak stretching back to December 2013. His third slam title draws him level with Andy Murray, but his strike rate is 100% compared to Murray’s 27%. Always self-effacing, Wawrinka believes the Big Four does not need to expand to a Big Five to accommodate him. Slams may be the yardstick of success, but it would be an oversight to ignore Murray’s all-round consistency that has also brought him 12 Masters 1000 titles and two Olympic singles gold medals.
Besides, categorising Wawrinka seems wrong. He does things his own way and is the tour’s enigma. On his day, there’s no bad match-up for him. He’s the first man since Federer to win his first three slam finals, and the first man since Jimmy Connors in 1974 to have his first three majors all come at separate events.
Given tennis’ rich history of teenage stars, we often find ourselves zealously championing talented youngsters: think of the push the ATP Tour have been giving the #NextGen concept this year. But Wawrinka and Kerber should serve as reminders that, given tennis’ increasingly physical demands, this is the age of the late-bloomer. We shouldn’t give up on players in their mid-late 20s because, with hard work like Stan and Kerber, they might just do the unexpected and transform themselves into Hall of Famers.
Photographs: Marianne Bevis and Kenneth Hong via Flickr