Wawrinka wears down Djokovic for U.S. Open title
AP Tennis Writer
NEW YORK — Mere minutes before heading out to face Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, Stan Wawrinka met in the locker room with his coach and felt as nervous as he ever had. Wawrinka was shaking. Started to cry, even.
“I don’t want to lose the final in a Grand Slam, that simple. That’s the only reason,” he explained later. “The feeling of: You don’t want to lose. I don’t want to come to the court and lose a final. So close, so far.”
Once he was on the court, and got over some shaky play at the very start, Wawrinka’s game and mindset were strong as can be, as they always seems to be these days when the stakes are highest. Repeatedly pointing his right index finger to his temple, the gesture he uses when showing his mettle, Wawrinka surprisingly wore down No. 1 Djokovic and beat the defending champion 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 for his first U.S. Open title and third Grand Slam trophy overall.
“He was the better player. He was tougher mentally,” said Djokovic, offering two of the highest compliments a tennis player can receive from the talented Serb. “He knew what to do.”
The 31-year-old Wawrinka is the oldest U.S. Open men’s champion since Ken Rosewall was 35 in 1970. He entered Sunday having spent almost exactly twice as much time on court during the tournament — about 18 hours vs. about 9 hours — as Djokovic, who benefited from injuries to three opponents that withdrew before or during matches.
“Honestly, after the match, I was completely empty,” the third-seeded Wawrinka said. “I put everything on the court. Not only today, but the past two weeks.”
By breaking in the final game of the second and third sets, and by saving 14 of 17 break points he faced, Wawrinka already had gained the upper hand by the time Djokovic clutched at his left leg and grimaced after missing a forehand while getting broken early in the fourth.
Djokovic was granted the unusual chance to have a medical timeout at a time other than a changeover. He removed both shoes and socks so a trainer could help with bleeding toes. Wawrinka complained about the 6-minute break, and Djokovic looked over and apologized. Later, Djokovic started limping and received more treatment.
“We played almost 4 hours,” said Djokovic, “and I think I can speak in the name of Stan, as well: We both felt it.”
Wawrinka has won only five of 24 career meetings against Djokovic, but has now beaten the 12-time major champion on the way to each of his own Grand Slam titles, including in the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals and 2015 French Open final.
Before this matchup, Djokovic praised Wawrinka as “a big-match player,” and, boy, is he ever. Wasn’t always, though: Playing in the shadow of his far-more-accomplished Swiss countryman and good pal, Roger Federer, Wawrinka needed until his 35th appearance at a major, at age 28, just to get to the semifinals for the first time.
But look at Wawrinka now.
He has won 11 consecutive tournament finals.
He is 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, beating the No. 1-ranked player each time. Take that trio of highest-stakes matches out of the equation, and Wawrinka is 0-19 in all other matches against the top man.
And he did it Sunday by coming back against Djokovic, whose French Open title in June completed a career Grand Slam and made him only the third man — and first in nearly a half-century — to win four consecutive major tournaments.
Djokovic had been 51-0 in U.S. Open matches when taking the first set. This time, though, the thick-chested Wawrinka eventually began bullying Djokovic from the baseline, not only with his best-in-the-game one-handed backhand, but off both wings.
“He likes to occasionally whack the ball quite hard, and I don’t think that Novak likes that,” said Wawrinka’s coach, Magnus Norman. “Stan is maybe one of the few guys who can really hit through Novak if he has a good day.”
As Wawrinka placed one stinging shot after another right on a line, Djokovic looked up at coach Boris Becker while gesticulating with his hands and muttering. He went from appearing locked-in at the outset to completely drained in every way.
On one point, Wawrinka delivered a shot so hard it knocked the racket from Djokovic’s grasp and against a wall behind the baseline.
After smacking a forehand winner to end a 20-stroke exchange near the end of the second set, Wawrinka pointed to his temple. Did it again after a forehand passing shot drew an errant volley for a break early in the third.
And so on.
Wawrinka nearly was gone before the end of the U.S. Open’s first week, one point from losing in the third round against 64th-ranked Dan Evans. Sunday’s victory made Wawrinka the first man to win the tournament after saving a match point since — yes, that’s right — Djokovic in 2011.
“You’re a great champion, a great person. Because of you, I am where I am today,” Wawrinka told Djokovic, a close friend, afterward. “We know each other (for) many, many years, and I had the chance to practice many times with him and to play him on a big stage.”
With that Djokovic, threw his left arm around Wawrinka’s shoulders, knowing which of the two was more up to the task on this day.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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