NEW YORK – Well after midnight, Stan Wawrinka kept coming. There were the usual one-handed backhand rockets—Wawrinka’s signature shot and one of the most lethal strokes in tennis—but the Swiss star also found success with finesse, mixing in timely topspin lobs (over a 6’6” opponent) and well-timed forays to the net. Finally, at 1:20 a.m. ET on Thursday, on a beautiful backhand down the line, Wawrinka extinguished the uplifting run of Juan Martin del Potro, who won the crowd but lost the match in four sets.
Despite being a No. 3 seed, Wawrinka is an unexpected semifinalist at the U.S. Open given the pre-tournament chatter understandably centered around Andy Murray, the hottest player on the ATP Tour this summer; del Potro, who defeated Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal at the Rio Olympics on his way to a silver medal, and of course, Djokovic, still the top player in the world despite his stunning third round loss to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. As of 9:40 p.m. ET on Wednesday night, the fivethirtyeight.com projection model gave Wawrinka just a two percent chance of winning the tournament, the lowest of the remaining men. (In the most recent update as of 1:21 a.m. ET, Wawrinka’s chances are at five percent; Gael Monfils ranks lowest with four percent.)
But the 31-year-old Wawrinka now has a legit chance to win his third career major. On Friday he plays No. 6-seed Kei Nishikori, who played a brilliant match earlier on Wednesday to take out No. 2-seed Andy Murray in five sets.
“We played many times against each other,” said Wawrinka, who owns a 3-2 career lead over Nishikori. “He beat me a few years ago here quarterfinal five sets. He beat me in Toronto. I beat him in Australia. I saw him play today. He was playing really well. It's going to be tough match. We will see also how I'm going to feel physically in two days to get ready for that.”
It has not been a great summer for Wawrinka—despite a run to the semifinals at Roland Garros, the World No. 3 lost to del Potro in the second round of Wimbledon, pulled out of the Rio Olympics due to a back injury, fell to Nishikori at the Rogers Cup and lost to Grigor Dimitrov in Cincinnati. Wawrinka also nearly exited the Open in the third round, saving one match point in the fourth set before rallying to beat Britain’s Daniel Evans 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (8), 6-2 in four hours and two minutes last Saturday. But he has proven to be a money player when it counts. Wawrinka has made the quarterfinals or better or 12 of his last 24 Slam tournaments (and advanced to the semifinals in seven of 13 majors since the 2013 Wimbledon), a streak that has come late in his tennis life. He was the oldest Roland Garros champion in 15 years when he won at age 30, and the oldest first time major champion since Goran Ivanisevic when he won the Australian Open in 2001. This is his third U.S. Open semifinals appearance in four years.
Despite his loss, del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open winner, is back in the conversation and that is good news for all of us. He will leap from No. 142 into the top 65 in next week’s ATP Rankings, his first time in Top 100 since Oct. 27, 2014 (at No. 64). The sport is much better with him and the pro-Delpo crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium serenated him prior to the final game against Wawrinka. It moved del Potro to tears on the court.
“Something difficult to describe with words,” he said afterward. “I mean, I can lose the match, but I will never forget this... I think my tennis is starting to respond as I want but physically I'm still down. I'm not in the same level that these guys. I need to just to stay healthy and wait for the preseason to get 100% for next year. I'm already top 100, so that's good.”
Said Wawrinka: “He got so unlucky with all the injury he had and the way he's playing right now, it's amazing. Everybody is happy to see him back at that level.”
That wasn’t just lip service. As del Potro left the court, Wawrinka clapped in appreciation. It was a memorable late night at the U.S. Open. One man moves on but both won something.