NEW YORK -- The idea of a Swiss man making a deep run at the US Open is not a wild one. In fact, Switzerland is constantly planting its flag at this tournament. In the last nine years alone it has seized the last five men's singles titles.
That a Swiss man is once again two rounds away from swiping the crown jewel of American tennis shouldn't come as a surprise. But it is, because that Swiss man is Stanislas Wawrinka.
On Thursday he ousted Andy Murray—the tournament's defending champion—in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 cakewalk to reach his first grand slam semifinal in three tries. Wawrinka's command performance, which saw him deny the game's best returner so much as a sniff at a break point, played like a retro impression of Roger Federer—the man who put Switzerland on the tennis map.
Next, Wawrinka will play Novak Djokovic, who needed four sets to beat No. 21 seed Mikhail Youzhny in the second men's semifinal. But Wawrinka's ready to take on the tournament's top seed, and he showed it with his play on Wednesday afternoon. Wawrinka was clever, employing a chip-and-charge attack that disrupted Murray's traditionally lethal baseline counteroffensive. Wawrinka was gutsy, screaming groundstrokes past Murray at will.
But most of all Wawrinka was as cool. When Murray appeared poised to serve his way to a 5-all tie in the first set Wawrinka kept right on swinging—through six errors, through eight deuce points, through 15 minutes—until he had the game won and Murray bashing his racket into the court on his way to his chair. When Wawrinka's concentration lapsed while on serve and leading 5-3 in the second set, he refocused; he smacked an ace wide and then baited Murray into a return error on his second serve to open an even wider lead.
The hint of a game plan Wawrinka revealed for this match two days earlier, after beating fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the previous round—("If I start well, if I stay with him, I can have some good chances to do something.")—was working. Murray had no answers. "He hit a lot of lines, was going for big shots, and he played too well," he said afterward.
As a disappointing as the loss was for Murray, his maiden title defense seemed doomed to fail. Despite his champion status, he came off like just another guy in the draw. Whatever buzz he entered the tournament with was downed out by Rafael Nadal's rampage through the summer hardcourt season and Djokovic's near flawless play in Queens. A Louis Armstrong Stadium date for his second-round match against Argentina's Leonardo Mayer (instead of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the traditional venue for champions) knocked Murray down another peg. So he played to the stage, like a second-tier guy, and let the wind and humidity unravel him—at no time more so than in a wobbly fourth-round match against Uzbekistan's Denis Istomin that saw the Brit drop the first set.
After rallying to a four-set victory, Murray offered a candid assessment of Wawrinka's confidence that dripped with envy and foreshadowing. "If someone goes on the court thinking they can win against you, then the match is as good as done. In an individual sport when you're just playing against one person, if you believe you can beat him and they don't have a very good day then you can cause an upset."
And it was pretty much over for Murray when Wawrinka broke to open the third set. This was Wawrinka's moment, one long in the coming. He's spent far too much of his career toiling in Federer's Alpine shadow, playing the role of the more shy, not-as-talented younger brother who is good enough to hang with the big boys but not good enough to beat them. That his greatest career success, a doubles gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, came with big brother by his side didn't exactly help Wawrinka stand out.
For most who watch the 28-year-old Wawrinka, he's the goat to Federer's G.O.A.T. For those who play him, though, he's baaaad. He's a ferocious hitter from both wings—especially on his backhand, a one-hander that might be the prettiest of any player not named Richard Gasquet—and an assassin at the net. If anything crippled his game it was self-doubt. Instability in his players' box didn't help. In 2011 he publically separated from his wife, Ilham, Alexia, and fired his coach Peter Lundgren—another Federer hand-me-down. The upheavals doomed Wawrinka to a '12 season of .636 ball with no titles.
In 2013 he hired Magnus Norman, a former world number two from Sweden, to coach him. It was a brilliant move given Norman's reputation for elevating his younger countryman, Robin Soderling, from relative obscurity to grand slam spoiler. Wawrinka, who's always had the weapons to be something more, just needed the self-belief. He has that now.
Eight months ago in the Australian Open fourth round he pushed Djokovic, the eventual champion, in a five-hour, five-set thriller. Two tournaments later in Buenos Aires, Wawrinka beat David Ferrer—in three sets, on clay—for his only title of the year. His confidence couldn't be higher. "I just had the feeling that...I had the game in control, that I can choose whatever I want to do during all the matches," Wawrinka said.
And now, for the first time in his career, he's going deeper in a major draw than Federer, whose long shadow over tennis is fast receding. It got pretty dark under there for Wawrinka, but he's not blaming the 17-time slam champion for that. "I'm really thankful for him because he helped me a lot," said Wawrinka, savoring his moment. Still, he has to make the moment last. He has to keep matching forward, keep carrying that flag all the way until the end before anyone will call him a true standard-bearer.