NEW YORK – Three quick thoughts from the 2016 U.S. Open men’s final.
• Stan Wawrinka gave us “good-to-great” in miniature today. After losing the first set of the men’s final, Wawrinka elevated his game, began caning his backhand, took advantage of the shaky serving of his opponent and ran away 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 to win a wild and weird U.S. Open men’s final.
Coming into this match, Wawrinka was 4-19 against Djokovic (and 2-19 when facing the top-ranked player.) But that was a misleading stat. Two of Wawrinka’s four wins against Djokovic came in recent majors, in best-of-five format. In a match that had echoes of the 2015 French Open final—save the hideous plaid shorts—Wawrinka hit through Djokovic’s defense, served better and didn’t wilt. And for the third straight year, he was won a major title—one at age 29, one at 30, one at 31.
• When he reflects on his career, Djokovic will likely recall this as his strangest major. He came in with a wrist injury sufficiently serious that—days before the event—members of his camp were uncertain whether he would even enter. Djokovic looked shaky in his first match. He would win his next two rounds by retirement. He next played an opponent (Kyle Edmund) ranked outside the top 80. In the quarters, he received another mid-match retirement (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) and then won a bizarre semifinal over Gael Monfils. In all, he reached the final playing fewer than nine hours of tennis.
While good fortune seemed to smile on him, it was a disguised curse. The arrhythmic tournament bit him in the posterior this evening, as Djokovic looked like he was struggling with timing and groping to find rhythm. After winning the first set, his level dropped precipitously, on the serve in particular. Looking less fresh than his opponents—Wawrinka had logged almost twice as much court time but it was Djokovic who needed a medical time out for blisters—Djokovic dropped the third set 5-7 and then it was all but over. It's hard to consider tonight a deep disappointment, especially given the play of the opponent. It’s hard to consider this event a deep disappointment, especially given the injuries that disrupted his campaign. It's hard to consider this year a disappointment, given his two majors. But for the third event since the French Open, Djokovic has looked vulnerable. The plot thickens.
• “Stan the Man” is the cheesiest of nicknames. But Wawrinka plays physical, brawny relentless tennis that is very much emblematic of the men’s game in 2016. He mixed defense and vastly improved footwork (at age 31) with explosive offense off both wings. Consider Wawrinka’s 46 winners against Djokovic, the best defender in tennis. And for a guy who played almost double the tennis as Djokovic, Wawrinka was the fresher player. He closed like a champion as well. Three major finals; three titles. Roger Federer may not have been here, but we have another wholly deserving Swiss champ.