Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
“I can’t remember how I first saw it,” says Wawrinka, who’s speaking to Men’s Health while on a spell in his homeland of Switzerland, spending time with his nine-year-old daughter, Alexia, while recharging on the eve of another year on the circuit. “When you’re a tennis player, even when you’re in the top 5 or top 15, you keep losing during the year. And when we are young, I think, losing means negative. And I don’t really agree with that.”
Wawrinka has grasped an essential truth. Tennis, like life, delivers nonstop miniature defeats. Even on the way to a triumph there are kicks in the guts, pokes in the eye, blows to the ego. You won that war but not every battle. You did this well and you fluffed that. You performed well but behaved poorly. You performed terribly and behaved worse. Tennis has honed Wawrinka’s ability to go again, and again, after falling on his face. To find the nobility in failure. To understand that the point of all this is not the winning or the losing but the striving.
“You need to learn from when you lose,” he says. “You need to try again. You need to practise and keep trying to improve. In life, for me, it is the same. You need to accept what is happening.”
What’s happening for Wawrinka is this: he’s starting his 18th year as a pro with a monumental achievement in reach. Yes, the Australian Open is the next grand-slam tourney on the calendar, beginning Jan. 20. And, of course, doing well there matters to Wawrinka, a champion in Melbourne in 2014. The city’s searing summer heat rarely bothers him, he says, and he’s always excited at the start of a new year. And yet . . . for fans of Stan, Wimbledon in June looms as the more tantalising occasion because it is the only one of the four major titles that he hasn’t won. Membership of a highly exclusive club is there for the taking: only eight men have won all four.
Talk about making the most of your opportunities. In an era dominated by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (55 major titles between them since 2002), power baseliner Wawrinka has managed to snatch three, his breakthrough win in Melbourne in his late twenties a forerunner to success at the French Open (2015) and US Open (2016).
So, he needs just a Wimbledon to complete a coveted career grand slam. If he can pull it off, it’ll feel like a daylight heist. Only tennis aficionados (and now you) will have seen it coming. Suddenly, Stan will be the Man, the toast of the tennis world. He’ll be 35 by then and quaffing the bubbly of Piper-Heidsieck, the champagne house that recently anointed him its global ambassador.
Just a Wimbledon. That’s almost a joke because there is nothing “just” about it. Not least for Wawrinka, for whom the slick and slippery grass courts of the All England Club are a test of mind and body. “By far,” he says, “it is the most difficult surface for me.”
Is Wimbledon on his mind? “Honestly, it’s not the way that I think,” he says. “And I never . . . I’ve already achieved way more than I expected.” While he knows what a Wimbledon victory would mean, “I’m not focusing on that. I’m not telling myself, ‘Okay, it would be amazing to win Wimbledon’. To me, I know how to win a grand slam and I also know how difficult it is.”
Nurse your niggles. Hit a thousand balls. Hit a thousand more. Harden your frame. Strengthen your mind. Before Wawrinka got the best tattoo in the game, compatriot Federer gave him the best nickname: Stanimal. A thickchested, amply-gluted 81kg, the man is strong. He can be a brute. He keeps coming at you. A knee injury requiring surgery in 2017 halted the most profitable run of his career and could easily have spelt ‘game over’ given his age and the movement demands of today’s game. Wawrinka spent eight weeks on crutches. He did the slow rebuilding of his atrophied shank and shattered confidence until he’d hauled his game and his world ranking (16 at time of writing) back into the top tier.
“My first grand-slam win was at 29 years old,” he says, “so it came quite late in my career. I’ve always been the one who wanted to improve, always wanted to practise. And I give this example to any player: you need to keep pushing yourself to be the best player you can be, because you never know which age it will be.”
You rarely glimpse it on court but in conversation there’s a warmth to Wawrinka. He uses your name, exudes goodwill. A previously scheduled interview was aborted because he needed to take his daughter to hospital. “She’s fine, thank you,” he says. “Sorry about that.”
This Stanimal comes from good stock. His German-born father, Wolfram, is a farmer and social worker; his Swiss mother, Isabella, has devoted much of her life to helping the disabled and forlorn. They sent their Stanislas to the Rudolf Steiner school in Crissier, where the goal is to nurture the whole child and not just the intellect.
He was eight when he first picked up a racquet. There were courts five minutes from home and he and his brother, Jonathan, hit weekly. By 11, Stan was playing every other day.
Before he had the best tattoo and best nickname, Wawrinka had the best backhand – the most sublime, anyway, a classical one-hander, all balletic lines and kinetic efficiency. As a junior he hit the backhand with two hands on the racquet but it wasn’t much of a stroke. It was his coach at the time who urged him to try it with one. “It was really tough but he said it was more natural for me and in the long term it would be better,” Wawrinka recalls.
You ask him when he first sensed he possessed a talent that could carry him far. “I never start to think like that,” he says. “For me, it was always about my passion for the sport, enjoying practising, enjoying playing, trying to find solutions to win matches or to be better. I never had the experience of telling myself, ‘Ah, you are good!’ It’s always been more about what you do to get there [the top], rather than wanting to be there.”
At points in the last five years Wawrinka would have been a worthy No. 1. He’s been as high as No. 3. When he redlines his game he can beat anyone, the Big Three included. It’s just that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are more consistent in the execution of their distinct and prodigious gifts. Wawrinka offers this precis of the peculiar challenge of encountering each:
FEDERER: “It’s the vision and the talent. He can do everything. Picks the right moment when to go and when not to go. He has a different vision of how to play.”
NADAL: “Rafa is the ultimate fighter. It is tough because he always puts so much intensity in, so much spin. He makes you work for every single point and you know that, if you don’t play the right ball, he’s going to finish it off.”
DJOKOVIC: “His game is so clean. He’s for sure the wall. He’s staying close to the [base] line. He’s reading. If you don’t push him back enough he will take control.”
his shadow over everyone in the game. But as a fellow Swiss at the sharp end of the rankings, Wawrinka might have felt it more keenly than most. But, again, the Wawrinka way is to mine every circumstance for positives.
“When I got going he was already No. 1,” says Wawrinka. “And I took advantage of that for sure.”
Took advantage? Federer was there with tips, guidance, encouragement. In time, a friendship formed between two men from roughly the same neck of the woods following the same surreal path to fulfilment. When they won gold as a doubles pairing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 their embrace said everything about how close they’d become
They’re also different styles of men. The cover provided by Federer’s GOAT-sized aura is a blessing of sorts for Wawrinka, who is as shy and private as Federer is gregarious. As a Top 10 player Wawrinka has been through a divorce and more recently a relationship imbroglio needlessly inflamed by a puerile contribution from Nick Kyrgios. At such times Wawrinka would have been glad to be only the second most-celebrated racquet-wielder from Switzerland.
Which brings us back to Wimbledon and Wawrinka’s quest for the full-house of majors, since who better than Federer, an eight-time champion there, to advise Wawrinka on how to win the world’s most famous tournament? Except that Federer will almost certainly be playing there himself – possibly for the last time – and craves a ninth title for the road.
So never mind advice. What about Federer’s example of skipping the claycourt swing in 2017 so he could focus on Wimbledon, which he duly won without dropping a set? Would Wawrinka consider trying the same approach?
“Absolutely no chance,” he says. “And I will tell you why.”
He explains how he’s a confidence player. How everything good in his game flows from confidence, and how there’s only one way he can build that confidence and that is by winning. So, to skip the big tournaments on clay – his favourite surface – would make no sense. Much better to play lots on clay, even if he runs himself ragged, and then show up at Wimbledon brimming with confidence. That will be the strategy, for better or worse.
And if he can win six matches to reach the final, look out. Because Wawrinka has a happy knack: he is deadly in finals. Before that bout of knee surgery flattened him in 2017 he’d won 11 on the trot. He is also 3 and 0 in grand-slam finals in which his opponent is the world No. 1.
The only conclusion to draw from those numbers is that Wawrinka is one of those athletes who’s able to perform at the outer limits of his talent when the stakes are highest. “I think, you know, when I get deep into a tournament, I always have the confidence,” he says. “I feel like I’m playing well. It is my chance to play my best tennis.”
At the end of last year there were hints – only hints, nothing more, nothing that hasn’t been misinterpreted many times before – that the next generation of male tennis players might at last be ready to surge and push the Big Three off its perch. Needless to say, none of Federer (38), Nadal (33) and least of all Djokovic (32) is ready to go quietly. You can ascribe that same attitude to Wawrinka.
“I would say it’s possible that I could play my best tennis sometime from now,” he says. That doesn’t mean, he clarifies, that he expects to go on some crazy winning streak, starting in Melbourne. “But I do believe that this year I will have some chances to win some titles and, hopefully, I will. Whether it’s going to be a big one or smaller ones, I don’t know. But I believe, yes, I still have some good tennis in me.”
Regardless of trophies, Wawrinka will revel in the process of trying to find his best game. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. With this as your maxim, how can you ever lose?
Piper-Heidsieck, the Official Champagne of the Australian Open, will be seducing tennis fans with its Champagne bar, La Maison Piper-Heidsieck, offering French elegance and glamour on Grand Slam Oval in the Australian Open precinct from Monday, 20 January until Sunday, 2 February. For more information, visit https://ausopen.com/partners/piper-heidsieck