Stan the Man: Wawrinka bests Djokovic to win U.S. Open

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Stan the Man: New U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka celebrates during his big four set win over world number one Novak Djokovic in what was a fantastic and grueling men’s final. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Tennis.com on Twitter.

Just call him Stan the Man. The hard working third seeded 31-year old Swiss who’s played in the shadow of Roger Federer won his first ever U.S. Open. In a captivating match that had plenty of mental and physical battles, Stan Wawrinka came back to defeat top ranked Novak Djokovic in four sets, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 at a boisterous Ashe Stadium.

In winning his third major, Wawrinka has now captured the Australian, French and U.S. Open. Two have come after turning 30 including Roland Garros in ’15 and Flushing Meadows on Sunday. Aside from going three-for-three in his first three major finals, he’s won an astonishing 11 consecutive finals on the ATP Tour. A streak he continued by getting the better of the game’s best player.

Despite an odd road to another final in Queens that included a walkover, two retirements and a bizarre four set semifinal win over the perplexing Gael Monfils, Djokovic had a chance to win three of four slams a second straight year, which would’ve further cemented his place as one of the game’s all-time best. He still owns 12 slams including this year’s Australian and French- his first which completed a career grand slam. It wasn’t meant to be for the weary world number one ranked Serbian who had two treatments for blisters in the fourth set. He clearly was hobbled but showed plenty of heart forcing Wawrinka to earn it.

“This is amazing,” an emotional Wawrinka told the crowd during the on court presentation on a special day which commemorated the 15-year Anniversary of September 11, 2001. “I came here without expecting to win it. When I stepped on the court, I tried to win every match. I did everything today against Novak. The crowd and atmosphere was something I’ve never had before. It’s an amazing night.”

On this night, it was Wawrinka who was the better player. As a classy Djokovic said during his runner-up interview, he was the ‘more courageous player.’ Indeed, Wawrinka was better on the big points, saving an incredible 14 of 17 break points against the game’s best returner. He also was more opportunistic, converting on six of ten break chances.

The difference was actually his defense. Normally a huge edge to the gritty Djokovic, it went to Wawrinka, who found ways to stay in points when he was pinned behind the baseline. He also went bigger crushing 46 winners compared to Djokovic’s 30. Both committed their share of unforced errors with Wawrinka having 51 while Djokovic made 46. A lot of the mistakes were due to some grueling rallies where each player never gave up on points or the other’s serve. It had that kind of feel. No wonder the four set match took three hours and 54 minutes to complete. Imagine if there was a fifth set. What would they have had left?

A much sharper Djokovic came out firing on all cylinders by quickly breaking a flat Wawrinka in the second game. He then held for a 3-0 lead. Wawrinka was misfiring wildly from the baseline. His normally unflappable and clutch one-handed backhand- the best in the sport- was missing. It was that clutch shot he made on a match point in a third round win over Daniel Evans that kept him alive long enough to win a tiebreak and pull out a five set win. He then needed four sets in the next two rounds including an emotional quarterfinal victory over former ’09 Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro in a Davis Cup atmosphere. He also fought back from a set down to overpower Kei Nishikori in the semis.

To his credit, Wawrinka regained his composure. Finding the form that has always made him a “big match player” according to Djokovic, he worked his way back in the first set eventually breaking back. Even with momentum entering the tiebreak, he dropped the breaker 7-1. There were two incredible points back-to-back. The first, Wawrinka won with both players scrambling from baseline to net with him able to knock off a volley into an open court. The next point saw Djokovic at his defensive best, going on the full run to hit a perfect backhand up the line for a huge winner. He would then cruise to take a one set lead.

Despite falling behind, Wawrinka started the second set by going up an early break on Djokovic, jumping out to a 4-1 lead. His bigger ground game seemed to be getting to Djokovic. But the resilient two-time Open winner valiantly fought back with a break of his own, eventually squaring the set at 4-all. Knowing he needed to hold, Wawrinka gamely held for 5-4. In the 10th game, he was able to break Djokovic to square the match.

The third set was wild and unpredictable. There were three breaks of serve, speaking to just how competitive each service game was. It was again Wawrinka early in the set who jumped in front due to unconscious winners from both sides. Whether it be his lethal one-handed backhand either cross court or down the line or his forehand also down the line, he was the more brave player. Something Djokovic referenced afterwards.

“I lost my nerves in the important moments. He kept his cool. I think that’s what decided the match. I just didn’t capitalize at all on my opportunities. I had plenty of them. It was a terrible conversion of the break points. Just terrible from my side,” the always honest world number one assessed.

“In matches like these, if you don’t use the opportunities, the other guy comes and takes it. And that’s what he did. That’s why I said he was more courageous, because he stepped in and played aggressive where I was waiting for things to happen.”

Despite Wawrinka outslugging him 18-8 in winners during a long third set that needed over an hour, a determined Djokovic began pushing Wawrinka wide. The change in strategy helped him claw back in the set with a break of serve. It also put his opponent more on the defensive, drawing 19 unforced errors. After fighting off two break points in a momentum shifting service game late in the third set, Wawrinka seized the moment in the 12th game. With Djokovic trailing 5-6 and trying to force a tiebreak, it was a persistent Wawrinka who took the game to deuce. He played two strong points by changing the pace. Instead of hitting full out, he threw change ups at Djokovic which drew errors to take the set. As is his trademark, he pointed to the temple after going up a set.
When he went up an early break and jumped out to 3-0 in the fourth, it looked like the end. It was in Djokovic’s first service game that during an extended point, he pulled up and felt a twinge. Clearly hurting, he struggled and dropped serve. Despite trailing 0-3, he didn’t call for the trainer for a medical timeout. With it apparent that he was cramping, ESPN’s Patrick McEnroe noted that a player cannot use a timeout for cramps. Following a brave hold for 1-3, it was then that a limping Djokovic approached the chair umpire and asked for a timeout to treat another injury.
During the stoppage which came with Wawrinka about to serve, he protested. The rules say an injured player should wait until their serve for a medical timeout. So, he was right. Something both McEnroe and Brad Gilbert reemphasized as did John McEnroe. The injury turned out to be legit. Djokovic was suffering from blisters, which from the ESPN camera were quite ugly. They didn’t need to give a close up on the second treatment with it visibly showing a bloody toe. Curt Schilling would’ve been proud.
When play resumed, it was Djokovic who applied the pressure. He earned two more break chances to get back on serve. But a feisty Wawrinka fought both off and eventually held in a game that took about seven minutes to lead 4-1. Despite not showing much wear and tear despite being on the court double of Djokovic for the tournament, he later admitted the obvious.

“Today I was trying to stay with him,” Wawrinka told reporters in a press conference. “I was trying to be tough with myself, trying not to show anything, not to show any pain, not to show any cramps, not to show anything. I was suffering on the court, but I’m happy and proud with what I have achieved today.”

His persistence paid off. He really earned it. After a comfortable hold for 5-2, Wawrinka was forced to serve it out by a courageous Djokovic, who held for 3-5. Consecutive tight points allowed the packed stadium to believe Djokovic had a chance of forcing a fifth set. But after trailing Love-30, it was Wawrinka who won the final four points to win his third slam.

At the net, the two embraced. Djokovic, who apologized to Wawrinka during his first medical treatment, had some kind words for Stan. When asked about it by ESPN on court presenter Tom Rinaldi, he sarcastically didn’t reveal it to chuckles. The respect and warmth the two displayed was great. Wawrinka paid homage to Djokovic calling him a “great champion,” while also receiving his winner’s check of $3.5 million and the trophy.

Wawrinka made sure to thank his coach Magnus Norman, parents and girlfriend Donna Vekic. The pretty 20-year old WTA player smiled and hugged her man when he climbed up to celebrate the big win in his players’ box.

Despite seeing a wounded Djokovic at less than peak form, he showed tremendous heart. That’s what makes him so tough to beat. He still made it a thriller which almost went four hours.

In the end, Wawrinka was the better and more deserving player. One who joined legends Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi as players who have won multiple slams after turning 30. Agassi won five of his eight after 30 including three Australians.

It’s good for tennis to see Wawrinka reemerge after a tough year at the slams. He reached the semis at the French but was ousted before the quarters at the Australian and Wimbledon. Next year, he’ll turn 32 on March 28. He’s still getting better. A scary aspect for the rest of the field. He’s a Wimbledon shy of a career grand slam. Figure him to fare better than the second round when a returning Del Potro got him in four sets.

In what was a great tournament, you had a top four player win. Our pick Andy Murray disappointed by losing in five sets to the pesky Nishikori, who rallied from two sets to one down. The 2014 runner-up put everyone on notice that he’s still a factor. As for 14-time slam champion Rafael Nadal, it’s hard to say if he can win another one. Health will be the key. Don’t forget Roger Federer, who will return next season fresh after realizing his knee wasn’t fully recovered. Milos Raonic was a finalist at Wimbledon.

The men’s field remains as competitive as ever. With the talented Monfils, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga having never won a major and up and coming 22-year old Frenchman Lucas Pouille looking like a threat, it should only become tougher.

The game is in great shape for the present and future.

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Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.

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