Spaniard man vs Swiss man in a tennis match. Without saying anything else, you’re thinking of Nadal vs Federer. Well sorry to disappoint…. because the Swiss man of the moment is none other than 28 year old Stanislas Wawrinka, beating Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, and breaking the stranglehold of the Big 4 who have dominated tennis the past several years. So, how did he get here? What makes him so good? What is in the drinking water in Switzerland that makes people such good tennis players? Okay, don’t know the answer to that last one but let’s examine the rest.
Wawrinka’s always been a pretty good player, but being pretty good doesn’t win you many titles and it especially won’t win you grand slams. There are a lot of good players in professional tennis, but very few are elite. So few, they can be counted on one hand (with only 4 digits). The difference between the top 4 men’s players and everyone else is wider than in any other sport. And most of it has to do with mental toughness. They have it and the others do not. Stan definitely did not, until recently. Sure he had some positive outcomes. Like in 2010, Stan made his first grand slam quarterfinal at the US Open, beating No. 4 of the big 4 Andy Murray, and the following January he had the same result in Australia. But he quickly regressed, losing early in the remaining slams of 2011 and 2012. His personal life was going downhill as well. He and his wife separated in 2011, as Stan battled a minor drinking and smoking problem.
But ’13 proved to be a lucky number to Mr. Wawrinka. Because in the fourth round of the 2013 Aussie Open, the potential he’s had bottled inside for so many years was unleashed on 3 time Aussie champ Novak Djokovic. I remember watching this match throughout the night, falling asleep at times but waking up to the roar of the crowd after big points. Back and forth, back and forth it went, until Djokovic finally prevailed in 5 sets, after 5 and a half hours. Yes, 5 AND A HALF HOURS. That’s longer than the Super Bowl, and almost half as long as the Oscars (okay, maybe the Academy Awards just seem like forever).
Stan may have lost this match on paper, but he scored a very important victory in the confidence department. The seed had finally been planted in his brain that he can handle the game’s elite players. By early September, Wawrinka was playing in his first grand slam semifinal at the US Open. And guess whom he faced? Djokovic, again. Another 5 set epic? Of course. Wawrinka fell in this match as well, but he seemed closer than ever to completing the breakthrough. He could almost taste it.
Stan’s stellar play in 2013 was enough to qualify him for the end of the year tournament for the Top 8 players, in London. There he dazzled us again by making it to the semifinals, only to lose to Nadal in a very close match. Many would have said his breakthrough was now complete, but not Stan. He knew he was capable of more.
Which leads us to the present. Wawrinka found himself in familiar waters in this year’s Australian Open, as he played Djokovic just like last year. Only this time around, the script was reversed. Stan took him out in 5 sets. Then in the semifinals he defeated Tomas Berdych to make it to his first grand slam final on Sunday night, where he beat Rafael Nadal in 4 sets. Now, the breakthrough is complete. The milestone has been reached. Stanislas Wawrinka is 1 of only 2 players outside of the big 4 to win a slam in nearly a decade. And he is the only player EVER to defeat Djokovic and Nadal in the same tournament. Yeah, kind of a big deal.
But, why is he so much better lately? I think it’s a combination of factors that culminate in one major difference-maker. Confidence. I’ve written extensively about this topic on my personal blog, because I believe it to be the governing principle for success. Is it difficult to attain a high, consistent level of confidence? Yes. As Stan has proven, it does not come about overnight.
In the book ‘Think and Grow Rich’, Napoleon Hill discusses how we must surround ourselves with people who will make us better. As he calls it, our “Master Mind Group.” Because if you aren’t around successful people, how will you know what it’s like to be a success? Stan has followed this doctrine to a T.
First of all, he is good friends with the greatest player of all time, Roger Federer. Besides the fact they’re both Swiss, they actually spend time together. Practicing at nearly every tournament, and oftentimes competing as a doubles tandem at those tournaments. Lest not forget, they won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in doubles. An achievement that carries much clout on an international scale. One could say it’s the Scottie Pippen formula for success. Play with Michael Jordan for a decade and you’re guaranteed to be a superstar. But hey, it works.
Secondly, Stan hired a new coach in 2013, Magnus Norman (a successful player in his day). Norman toughened Stan up and made him stronger in the key matches. Helping him to feel more confident in his groundstrokes, so that Wawrinka could hit the ball hard and flat during pressure moments, rather than letting up due to nerves.
Thirdly, Stan and his wife reconciled. Hey, it might’ve helped.
So I can’t say I’m totally shocked that Stan has now won a grand slam title. He has done everything it takes to be truly successful in the sport. Still, what a turnaround. He did what most said could never be done. Overtaking the big 4 of men’s tennis. And he did it by being smart, focused, and a little bit lucky. But hey, luck is when hard work meets opportunity, right? Welcome to the big 4, Stan.