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Wawrinka must elevate his game to beat Djokovic at U.S. Open

Photo: Al Bello /Getty Images

The winner of this rematch of the fourth round of the Australian Open advances to the U.S. Open final.

In the wee morning hours of Sunday, January 20th, as America began sleeping off its Saturday night, Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka were locked in racquet warfare in the fourth round of the Australian Open. The match had everything: a glittering venue in Rod Laver Arena, a Swiss middleweight contender in Wawrinka trying to punch above his weight, a two-time defending champion in Serbia's Djokovic digging deep, and a marathon fifth set that would decide a trip to the quarterfinals. After five hours, Wawrinka yielded to Djokovic 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10. By the time America woke up on Sunday, the match was being heralded as one of the all-time greats.

The rematch — this Saturday, on home soil, in the final slam of the 2013 tennis season — is not to be missed. The stakes are higher: this time the winner advances to the final round of the U.S. Open, where he will face either second-seed Rafael Nadal of Spain or eight-seed Richard Gasquet of France.

Wawrinka, seeded ninth, has a good chance to be the guy that moves on. The best tennis of his life, which is what he says he's playing now, has carried him deeper into a slam than he's ever been. But if Wawrinka is indeed to upset the top-seeded Djokovic, a six-time major champion two years removed from claiming his last trophy in Queens, he will have to take his game to an even higher level. Reviewing that Australian Open loss could prove instructive. Here are five things to take from it:

1. He needs to get off to another fast start. Few gave him a chance of doing that Down Under against Djokovic, whose service games had been automatic; through the first three rounds of the tournament, the Serb had faced just five break points and thwarted them all. His run of dominance looked as if it would continue after his easy hold to open the game. That is, until Wawrinka converted three of three break point opportunities. And he did it by not being so passive in the return game. Traditionally, Wawrinka hacks balls into the middle of the court — a maneuver that all but invites the server to take big cuts at his return and blow him off the court. However, this time Wawrinka was the aggressor. In his U.S. Open quarterfinal match on Thursday, Wawrinka used his defense again to set the tone, gobbling up Andy Murray's serve for nearly half of his 107 total points; that paved the way for four key breaks. It's exactly the kind of roll he needs to be on going into Saturday's rematch against Djokovic, who, brilliance aside (just five breaks conceded so far), is vulnerable to scratchy starts. Playing down to his opponent could be deadly. Which leads us to...

2. He can't blow the leads. If you've got the champ on the ropes, you best knock him down. And after charging to a 5-2 lead in the second set, Wawrinka had Djokovic right there. But instead of going for the kill shot, he got nervous. He started stabbing at returns (again), which put him out of position to handle Djokovic's massive replies. To compensate, Wawrinka went for bigger strokes and missed the lines. He pressed. You can't press against Djokovic because Djokovic has nothing but the time, the talent and the stamina to extend a rally long enough for his opponent to make a mistake. Call it Rope-a-Djok. That's exactly how he rolled Wawrinka for a five-game winning streak to get back into the match. If Wawrinka keeps his foot on the gas, he's halfway home.

3. He has to get more first serves in play. This year, Wawrinka is landing just 55 percent of them. But his second serve is so strong — especially to the backhand, where it kicks into the body—that he holds 89 percent of the time anyway. That includes his first 17 sets at the U.S. Open, in which he's lost a total of nine service games. But as the Australian Open match wore on, Djokovic began reading Wawrinka's toss (which he flung a bit farther ahead of him than usual) clearly enough to break him twice in three chances in the third set, and then twice more in the final frame. If the wind starts whipping on Saturday (the forecast calls for 9 mph gusts), Wawrinka could be in a heap of trouble.

4. He has to put the easy balls away. If frustrated Wawrinka fans are looking for a sequence to GIF, the Swiss number 2 served up a gem to start the third set against Djokovic. Midway through a rally while on serve and facing break point, he found himself at about midcourt, on the ad-side above the service line, staring up at a lob. Djokovic, well behind the baseline and careening beyond the deuce court doubles lines, had left the entire court open. The ball hung in the still Melbourne air like a yellow piñata. Wawrinka had two good options: let it bounce and freeze Djokovic, then spike it any which way he pleased (degree of difficulty: medium-to-low); or take it out of the air and drive it to the side of the court opposite Djokovic (degree of difficulty: high-to-Samprarian). Wawrinka chose option number two, and by the time he did, Djokovic had recovered and threw up another lob, this one pushing Wawrinka all the way to the ad-side baseline. Three shots later Djokovic hit a sliding backhand cross court that sunk like a Mariano Rivera fastball and caught Wawrinka looking. He reacted (late) with a forehand, and it sailed long to give Djokovic the break, prompting tennis' Muhammad Ali to perform a backpedaling jig for his box — and why not. It was his fifth victory in a row. After stinging like a bee, he certainly earned the right to float like a butterfly. Or try, at least.

The exchange seemed as if it might stand as a teachable moment for Wawrinka, on the perils of playing paddy cake with the big boys; alas, it wasn't. On Thursday against Murray, he missed yet another chance to crush yet another piñata. Down love-30 late in the third set, Wawrinka was at relatively the same depth of the court, but just inside the right sideline this time. Murray was in the middle of the court with his back to the service line judge. If Wawrinka hits the ball straight ahead as hard as he can, right into the expensive seats, the point is over. But no. He went to the corner again (which induced yet another lob reply) and again until he won the point. The only part of the lesson Wawrinka seemed to learn was to let the ball bounce. (Who knows where the fall winds that swirl around Arthur Ashe Stadium will take these piñatas, after all?) That decision might've paid off against Murray—who was clearly not on his game on Thursday—but it won't work against Djokovic, whose knack for capitalizing on his opponents' whiffs is unparalleled.

5. He has to stay up. No player suffocates his opponent's spirit like Djokovic. Wawrinka can't let Djokovic's interminable rallies or his inventive shot making or his primal cries of self-satisfaction kill his will to win. His coach, Magnus Norman, knows a thing or two about scoring big upsets, having turned Robin Soderling into a giant slayer. (See: French Open, 2010.) Norman is going to give Wawrinka a great game plan. Wawrinka just needs to believe in it, or, failing that, keep believing in himself.

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