Stan, A Man

Stan Wawrinka dresses like he's at a carnival and plays like he's at a funeral. Nobody's more aware of out of place it he is than the man himself.
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At age 30, Stanislas Wawrinka is older than three fourths of the tennis world’s elite inner circle. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are younger; only Roger Federer, his fellow countryman, is longer in the tooth. Wawrinka was the last of this group to capture a Grand Slam title, though, and so the tardiness of his ascension allows for the notion he is still an ascendant player. We, and he, would be forgiven for presuming the best is still to come.

Yet even his breakthrough moments contained little of the vibrancy that figures to accompany major triumphs. When Wawrinka won the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open, he welcomed his Grand Slam victories with somber speeches that sounded more like apologies to the superior foes he vanquished than excitement for his own accomplishments. Having defeated his game’s greatest players, Wawrinka faced Federer and Novak with shame for having not taken them to the winner’s circle with him. It was strange stuff: If anyone were to apologize for preventing the greatness of others, it should have been them and not Wawrinka. This is the Wawrinka paradox put into action, each moment of flair dampened by bouts of moping humility.

Perhaps that’s because Wawrinka, like everyone else, is cognizant of his inability to string his singular accomplishments into an ongoing stretch of dominance. After he conquered the Australian Open field in 2014, Wawrinka tanked in the first round of the French Open. The match lasted two hours and twenty-three minutes, with Stan winning only one set. Taking place under dreary clouds and a hesitant rain, the crowd booed him on his way off the court. He finally broke through with a championship effort at Roland Garros in 2015, only to follow it up with a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon, bowing out in the quarterfinals to Richard Gasquet, a perennial underachiever whose one-handed backhand makes him something of a Wawrinka stencil on his best day.

Because of these surprising losses, Wawrinka’s identity is always in flux. Those two major wins float him above so much of the competition, but he can never rise to the standards of the rest of the era’s elite. Acknowledging this gap, Wawrinka denies he should even be in conversation with his contemporaries: “I’m not as good as them” and “I don’t want to be in comparison with them.” Whether he speaks out of deference or humility is debatable, but the only surefire sign of confidence Wawrinka displays—win or lose—are the words Stan the Man, as if printed on his equipment bag by a sports psychologist.

Stan’s never quite looked the part, either. As he journeyed towards winning the French Open last year, he donned a pair of hideous plaid shorts. Somehow managing to clash and blend at the same time with the red clay of Roland Garros, Stan turned the knob forward on his own career by dialing back his fashion sense. He and his shorts weren’t quite old, nor were they entirely new. And, combined with pockmarked cheeks and soul-saddened eyes, he resembled less a tennis star than some budding genius’ hipster dad. Stan even wears baggier shirts than his contemporaries, as if to hide the paunch of his non-athletic belly. He apologizes for winning because the mirror tells him so. Less Andy Murray and more Bill Murray, his lucky wardrobe gave off the impression he might be auditioning for a Wes Anderson film.

For his recent Australian Open match against Milos Raonic, he donned a radioactive concoction of pink and yellow. The effect was back porch lemonade meets ecstasy-induced rave. Such ornate wardrobe choices are always in direct contrast with his yacht-drifting wino eyes; the results, as always, were down, then up, and then slouching apart.

Wawrinka began the match as a caricature of his very worst. The 25-year-old Raonic swiftly took the first two sets, springing to net and soaring for one planet-crushing volley after another as Stan gloomed about, bleary-eyed and shoulder-slumped. At these times, the length and swiftness of the younger Raonic reduced Wawrinka’s primitive majesty to something anachronistic and slow, like a champagne bottle cracked ages ago against the hull of some soon-to-be-doomed voyage.

But then, with the third set treading water at five games apiece, Wawrinka shook loose from the glooming and jolted to life. He did so on the strength of his signature backhand, the kind of shot that recalls a fencer’s parry as much as a tennis stroke.

Wawrinka set sail with that noble release of his—arm angled up and away from his furrowed brow, pointing to a faraway dot in the light blue yonder—and Raonic watched the ball float by, as if Wawrinka’s power and grace had frozen him. The ball landed inside the baseline, allowing for Wawrinka to take a 15-30 lead in the game. At deuce, Wawrinka would win the next two points and the game. And then he would win the set. With Raonic sprinting to net, Wawrinka’s backhand, once again, handcuffed his more athletic opponent. After a night spent adrift, Stan appeared to be tacking into the wind, discovering the sobriety of his talent.  

The sensation of seeing the emergence of genius proved to be short-lived: Stan lost the fifth set in rather meek fashion, 6 games to 3.

It was a deflating moment, but perhaps Stanislas Wawrinka’s foremost achievement is how he never dips into full-fledged tragedy. He will probably resurface at Roland Garros or Wimbledon or maybe even New York. And, in a Novak-centric world, the game needs Wawrinka at his most quixotic. After all, his wagering on archaic skills and lost arts in the face of the game’s modern ballistics is what makes him a particular brand or flavor to be sniffed and swilled from a fishbowl glass. He is as much tortured artist as proud athlete. To win or lose is not good or bad. With Stanislas, the process is what matters, and his televised matches are PBS specials on how to play exquisitely morose tennis, in extravagantly colored clothing.

When his time at the 2016 Australian Open was up, Stanislas Wawrinka raised his eyebrows, patted Milos Raonic on his clavicle, and didn’t say a word. There was no need for words at all. His eyes told the story of a great house recognizing its own decline, doomed to fall but never collapsing.


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