Pat Cash On Why Stan Wawrinka Is 'A Real Danger' At The US Open
It's been a tough road back from two left knee surgeries for three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss hasn't won a title. He hasn't made a major semi-final since, either. But it feels as if the world-beating 'Stan the Man' — the player whom is capable of defeating anyone on his day — is nearing ever closer to a breakthrough.
Wawrinka went under the knife 24 months ago when he was still ranked inside the Top 5 of the ATP Rankings. But it’s been an uphill climb since for the former World No. 3.
“For sure I was worried a lot because I had eight weeks on crutches," Wawrinka said before his return. "I started my first fitness by just walking. The thing is, it's always complicated when you're at that level before, you get [an] injury, you can get through pain, [but] mentally also, [you can be] feeling lonely, not feeling good."
Wawrinka knew this would be a new obstacle to overcome.
The Swiss did not compete after Wimbledon in 2017, and he missed an additional three months in 2018 to further recover. As recently as last June, he was outside the Top 250 of the ATP Rankings. Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon titlist, believes that even though Wawrinka had proven himself a champion, there was no guarantee the Swiss would return to his former glory.
“Absolutely there was a doubt. He can’t be less than 100 per cent fit. If he’s 95 per cent, I suppose he can get away with that a little bit. You can’t win matches unless you’re 100 per cent. If you’ve got a degenerative issue in your knee where you’ve just worn it out, then yeah, there was a huge doubt if he’d ever come back,” Cash told ATPTour.com. “I don’t think anybody drew a line through him, but there was a big question mark at the age of 32 and you’ve got knee problems how well you’d come back. Certainly in my era, you were done... typically if you have a knee injury at the age of 30, you’re cooked.
“But full credit. I think anybody who’s got a serious knee injury in their 30s, it’s fantastic to see them come back, it’s a huge effort.”
Wawrinka has enjoyed some strong results in the past 20 months, including a trip to the championship match of this year’s ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament and then a quarter-final showing at Roland Garros. In Paris, he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in a fourth-round thriller that took more than five hours. That epic remains a contender for match of the year.
But he has yet to have a true ‘Stan the Man’ moment in which his tennis caught fire that could not be stopped. So while Wawrinka’s ATP Ranking has slowly moved closer to his former status as a Top 5 player — in June, he briefly returned to the Top 20 — the Swiss has been pushing for one of those special moments. And it appears that could be nearing at this US Open.
On Sunday evening in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the World No. 24 led Djokovic by two sets and a break before the top seed retired due to a left shoulder injury. Djokovic was physically hampered, but Wawrinka played some of his best tennis, and that would have made it a battle for the Serbian even if he was fully healthy.
“I'm super happy with the level to be here in front of you winning tonight. For sure it's very special to play the No. 1 player in the world,” Wawrinka said. “Sorry he had to retire to finish the game like that, but for me, most important is the way I'm playing, the way I'm moving. Tonight I think was a really high level. That's the most important.”
It was no surprise to Djokovic that Wawrinka brought that quality of tennis. The World No. 1 leads their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 19-6, but Wawrinka has now won four of their seven Grand Slam meetings.
“Knowing what he has achieved in his career — that he's a big-match player — he loves to play on the big stage against the best players of the world. It's what got him three slams and Olympic gold and everything,” Djokovic said. “He struggled himself with a lot of injuries, so he understands [my feelings]. He knows how it is. It's great to see him playing on the highest level.”
Amidst discussion about Djokovic’s exit, the Swiss has quietly manoeuvred himself into a position he’s plenty familiar with in Flushing Meadows. He is into the last eight here for the fifth time in his past six appearances, ready for a quarter-final showdown with Cincinnati champion Daniil Medvedev.
“A fully fit and confident Stan Wawrinka is as good as anybody, there are absolutely no doubts about it. He’ll fancy himself against anybody,” Cash said. “He’s a real danger. A lot of the guys don’t want to get damaged too early before they get to the latter stages of the tournament, so this next round is crucial. Obviously he has a massive battle against Daniil Medvedev.”
Wawrinka always seems to find those ‘Stan the Man’ moments under the utmost pressure. And as Cash noted, the 34-year-old’s strength and overall physique make him a nightmare to play against in the best-of-five-set format. Ignoring the tactics of the match, it will be interesting to see whether Medvedev will be able to keep up with Wawrinka’s physicality long enough to triumph.
The Russian has enjoyed the best stretch of his career over the past two months, but he has also played 20 matches since Wimbledon. Wawrinka, who will likely be the fresher man, has played just eight.
“I think Grand Slams suit him really well because he’s so strong and fit. He’s one of the very few players who are just so strong and can go for hours and hours. It’s hard to beat a guy like that,” Cash said. “There’s not many of the guys who are that big and strong. Khachanov may be able to do that in the years to come, that sort of player. But Stan, he loves five sets. It’s hard to wear a guy down when he hits the ball that hard for five sets.
“I think Stan is one of those players who you look down the other end and you say, ‘This is going to be a real battle. This guy isn’t going to get tight and he’s going to hit the ball just as hard in the fifth hour as he is in the first hour.’”
Wawrinka needed some time to work his way into this event, with his opponents pushing him to four sets in the first two rounds. But as Cash pointed out, the No. 23 seed is striking the ball cleanly off both wings and serving well, too. Wawrinka ranks seventh in the tournament with 54 per cent of his first serves not coming back into play (74/138), and he has won 90 per cent of his service games (64/71).
Now, it's crunch time for Wawrinka. The veteran has given himself a chance to unleash 'Stan the Man' again in New York. Wawrinka is on the verge of his biggest breakthrough since his left knee operations. Now it's just about executing.
“I know how I feel in Grand Slams. I know I get to my best level,” Wawrinka said. “Sometimes I struggle a little bit in the first few rounds, but if I get the win, if I can pass those matches, I know my confidence gets better. I'm happy with the way I'm playing so far, and hopefully I can keep going.”