Wawrinka's confidence carried him to the Australian Open title

Sunday January 26th, 2014

Stanislas Wawrinka has lost 39 of his last 40 matches against Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Robert Prezioso/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Stanislas Wawrinka's passport will suggest that he spent the last two weeks in Australia. But he also visited another place. There's no name for it. There are no GPS coordinates. It's not really "The Zone," the magical space where everything goes right. But it was a new place for Wawrinka. We'll call it The Land of Self Belief.

Wawrinka spent his time in the Antipodes blasting the ball, as he has done for much of the past decade. But this time, he had an air of confidence about him -- no fist-pumping and chest-thumping, but authentic conviction. I. Am. Going. To. Win.

This was a new locale for Wawrinka. He has long been top-flight player, but he's been obscured by the considerable shadow of Roger Federer in Switzerland. And his mental game has never been solid. Consider: coming into this tournament, he had lost 39 of his last 40 matches to tennis' Big Three -- Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Think about that for a moment. You're among the top ten practitioners of your craft in the world, but you've been demonstrably better than the three alphas at the top only once in 40 tries. Imagine what that does for your confidence.

WERTHEIM: Wawrinka outplayed a hobbled Nadal in a strange Australian Open final

But for six-plus rounds in Melbourne, Wawrinka betrayed no doubts. In the quarterfinals, he beat Novak Djokovic in the best match of the tournament, a five-set classic that featured brilliant tennis, but was less about strokes than mettle. Djokovic had beaten Wawrinka twice in Grand Slam five-set matches in the past year. This time, Djokovic blinked first. What was the difference, Wawrinka was asked. "My confidence," he said immediately. Wawrinka then played Tomas Berdych in a who-wants-it-more semifinal match that could have gone either way. Again, Wawrinka prevailed.

Then on Sunday, he played in his first Grand Slam final. Never mind that, in a dozen matches, he had never even mustered a set against his opponent, Nadal. Wawrinka believed. He played a first set that verged on perfect. Deadeye ball-striking. Dynamic serving. Ideal tactics. He bullied the bully, played with bruising assertiveness -- and, yes, superior confidence -- and beat Nadal 6-3. He picked a hell of an occasion to win his first set against Nadal. "Tough to stop," was how Nadal put it. Watching courtside, Pete Sampras saw it similarly. "He wasn't just outplaying [Nadal]. He was making him work."

Then Nadal tweaked his back and left the court for a medical timeout. Even then, Wawrinka's new confidence was on full display. Long regarded as one of the quieter and more amiable players on tour, he berated the tournament officials, demanding they tell him nature of the injury. Hey, if this guy is going to interrupt the rhythm of the match, you should at least let me know why. It was quite reasonable, if not the kind of argument Wawrinka would engage in the past, certainly not on this stage. But confidence gives you backbone. And an official did indeed relent and tell Wawrinka why opponent had left.

NGUYEN: Game-by-game analysis of Wawrinka-Nadal final

When Nadal returned, he was virtually incapacitated. When Wawrinka rolled past Nadal in the second set, the televisions cameramen were ordered to zoom in tight at the changeover, thinking Nadal would shake hands and retire from the match. That's how poorly Nadal was moving.

Nadal, though, did not retire. And whether it was the painkillers kicking in, Nadal's back loosening, Wawrinka tightening up or -- most likely -- a combination of all three, the match turned. Nadal broke Wawrinka's serve and nearly his nerve. Nadal took the third set. And suddenly Wawrinka had his most fierce mental test yet.

As any recreational player knows, it stinks playing a wounded opponent, and it's even worse when it's a Grand Slam final. But it's almost intolerably awful when the wounded opponent begins to win. Wawrinka looked across the net and there was Nadal, clawing back into the match. Wawrinka looked to the corner and there was the winner's trophy, waiting to be claimed.

Had Wawrinka shown up this evening, played gamely and lost in straights sets, he still has a beer. Great tournament, a seven-figure payday, a nice rankings jump. Nadal was too good, a historic champion, and there's no shame losing to him. Instead, Wawrinka was on the brink of a fiasco. Up 2-0 sets with a chance to win your first Major? Against an opponent who was serving at sub-100 mph? A guy knows for his defense and fight, barely giving chase to balls? That's precisely the kind of a loss that ruins careers.

NGUYEN: Videos, photos, quotes and more from Wawrinka-Nadal final

Faster than you can say Guillermo Coria, Wawrinka steadied. He took calculated risks. He relocated his serve. The confidence was back. For all the match's theatrics, Wawrinka ended it in a conventional manner without much drama. He made the guy with compromised mobility actually run, taking only calculated risks and blasting gorgeous winners, especially off the backhand side. (As Sampras gushed afterwards, "That backhand -- I wish I had that thing.") Wawrinka closed out the strangest and most uncomfortable of matches 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

He became only the second player in the last nine years outside the "Big Four" to win one of the Big Four events. He became the first man in two decades to beat both of the top two seeds at a tournament. He will move to No. 3 in the rankings, and, yes, he is the top Swiss player right now. Score one for the Confidence.

Where did self-belief come from? Why did it surface now, at age 28, more than a decade into this drill? No one really knows, not even Wawrinka. But as he roamed the halls of the tennis center afterwards, he passed a montage of past champions, large action. All the "celebrity coaches" of this event: Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg. All the players who had been preventing him from getting those big trophies: Djokovic, Federer, Nadal. Wawrinka gets his space now. And if he remains in the Land of Confidence, he might well get more.

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