Earlier this week, Stan Wawrinka triumphed to his third Grand Slam title, all coming since age 29.
In fact, if you’d mentioned to the 2012 year end No.17 that he’d be a Wimbledon away from a career slam in just four years time, he’d probably laugh you off and point to the fact that he only currently has three career titles.
But four years later, Wawrinka is on the doorstep of what only eight other men in the history of tennis have been able to achieve. None of them did it after turning 30.
Rewinding back to 2012, and Stan’s career trajectory was beginning to look like a great many others on the world tour. Achieve a top 20 ranking, perhaps a month or so in the top 10, slowly decline with age and vanish into tennis obscurity.
But don’t think this is a narrative to be ashamed of. These players make up the bulk of the tour. Players who get the most out of themselves, enjoy their time on tour and if they’re lucky, walk away with a title or two and a fat wallet when it’s all over.
Unsatisfied with his impending tennis mortality, soon to be 30-year-old ‘Stan the Man’ took a chance, split with his talented Slam winning coach Peter Lundgren, and hired the previously successful Magnus Norman.
Norman had surprisingly gone unhried in three years, despite taking countryman Robin Soderling as far as the French Open Final (twice), an ATP Masters title in Paris and to world No. 4.
Perhaps as if they both felt they had something to prove, the Swiss and the Swede were a match made in heaven.
Before pairing up with Norman, Wawrinka was a powerful offensive baseliner, structuring his game around his one handed backhand, even at the time considered one of the best on tour.
However, it was his forehand where an opposition good enough could generate enough errors to gain the advantage in a match.
Norman immediately went about improving this, along with his rallying skills and consistency, and as a result, has helped turned a flawed offensive baseliner into arguably the worlds best in around 12 months.
But Norman has developed more than just Wawrinka’s on court game. The former world #2 is no stranger to the importance of grabbing opportunities when they present themselves and holding on for dear life.
Coming up short in the Final of the 2000 French Open to Gustavo Kuerten, Norman was determined to not let his third student suffer the same fate as himself and Soderling.
Obviously buoyed by his improved consistency on court, ‘Stanimals’ mental game became a major focus for the duo, and today, Wawrinka is literally as good as they come in this department, highlighted by his “temple point” celebration.
“I never try to think what I am going to do”, Stan said after his latest Grand Slam triumph. In our sport, this is exactly how it must be.
Thinking has no place on a tennis court. The thinking is done beforehand, and on the court, one only has time to repeat the skills, patterns, techniques and game plans rehearsed in practice. Not time to develop or consider new ones.
This is the key to being able to repeat your best tennis against the best opposition in the biggest matches of your career, which Stan the Man has made an art of over his meteoric rise.
In Grand Slam Finals, when opportunities have presented themselves, he has taken them. 3/3 in the final match of a Slam, including two victories over Novak Djokovic and one over Rafael Nadal.
Contrast this with the far more athletically and skillfully gifted Andy Murray. The Scot is 3-8 at that stage of a Grand Slam, falling five times to Novak Djokovic and three to Roger Federer.
Of course, making the Final of a Slam is nothing to be ashamed of. But being bested five times by a man who you yourself have beaten so convincingly at the same stage of the draw in the past – that is where Murray’s shame lies.
After all, Djokovic is far from unbeatable. He himself has been beaten nine times in the Final of a Grand Slam. Two of those now belong to our man.
Having identified this as a major sore point in modern tennis, Wawrinka and Norman have checked, checked and checked again that the 31 year old is without a doubt mentally able to handle the challenge.
At this year’s US Open, he proved for the third time out of three that he is, overcoming a fourth set comeback from Novak, and some gamesmanship, to take out his third major.
After painfully dropping the first set in a tiebreaker, Stan was at serious risk, and in absolutely no shame of, becoming a part of the world No.1’s freakish “first set wins/match wins” statistic.
But at Stan the Man’s age, there is simply no time that can be wasted on trial and error, or on losing.
Talent set the platform, hard work got him there, and the mental aptitude when required got him across the line. Stan Wawrinka is not just a model tennis player, but also a model athlete for those aspiring to be better than they think they can be.