Last week, long before it was clear he would face Roger Federer in today’s semi-finals, Stan Wawrinka lingered in the bar of his midtown hotel and talked about his unusual relationship with tennis’s Great One.
“I’ve learned a lot from his game,” Wawrinka, currently ranked No. 5 in the world, said of Roger Federer, ranked second.
While Wawrinka has been Federer’s understudy, growing up in the same Swiss training program and winning Olympic medals as his doubles partner, Wawrinka’s improved game over the past two years has threatened Federer’s dominance in their matchups. And despite Federer’s higher ranking and exquisite playing of late, there’s no question Wawrinka has been gaining ground on the Mighty Fed, challenging him like never before.
Since he first beat Federer in Monte Carlo only last year (after a decade of playing professionally together), Wawrinka has used his increasingly powerful groundstrokes to wear Federer down, punish him with winners from the baseline, and force him to win every point. At the French Open this year, Wawrinka dominated Federer, winning in three straight sets on his way to ultimately taking his second Grand Slam title.
“I’ve practiced so many times with him,” Wawrinka told me. “To see the shots he can do, to see him practice, to see him relax.”
Federer and Wawrinka also do not appear as close as they once were. Last year, tour officials had to reportedly force both into a room to settle a dispute after Wawrinka complained that Federer’s wife was making noises from the stands on his serve. Moreover, on the tour, Wawrinka is closer with Novak Djokovic, who has a notoriously distant relationship with Federer.
“We are really good friends, really close friends, we practice a lot together,” Wawrinka said of Djokovic, and when he beat him to win the French Open, Wawrinka said: “I felt sorry for him.
If Wawrinka beats Federer today, its hard to imagine any pity Wawrinka might have for the legend he’s been behind for so long. In Switzerland, Wawrinka is also competing with Federer’s near-flawless image. While Federer and his handlers have positioned him as the pinnacle of luxury, wearing expensive watches and boarding private jets, Wawrinka has had a harder time controlling his narrative. Earlier this year, along with his improved playing, Wawrinka’s wife blasted him in the press over their divorce, and he’s been heckled more or less for dating the 18-year-old Croatian tennis player Donna Vekić.
Many pro athletes have developed a kind of armor about negative press. Not Wawrinka. On tour he’s notoriously sensitive about what’s written about him and insists he prefers anonymity.
“I’m still happy to have my small life, to go to Central Park and nobody notices me,” he said.
Beating Federer in another semi-final won’t be enough to proclaim that Wawrinka is a better player than Federer is now. Nor will it erase the messy relationships that seem to follow him. But another semi-final victory over Federer will further establish his late-career rise as a player and more.
“I think now we are both nervous when we enter the court,” Wawrinka told reporters about the match. “Before it was only me.”
“That’s a big difference because that shows how much he knows that I can try to play my game, and not just react about what he’s doing.”