Wawrinka: ‘I Still Have This Fire In Me’
The former World No. 3 trailed 14th seed Reilly Opelka by a set and 2-4 in the first round at the ATP Masters 1000 event in the Italian capital, but Wawrinka battled hard to turn things around and complete a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory, his first tour-level win since the 2021 Australian Open.
“I think in general I was feeling good on the court,” said Wawrinka after booking a second-round meeting with Laslo Djere. “Physically I was feeling great. For sure when you don't win a match in more than a year, you start to think about it more than you should and not focus on the right things.
“In general I think it was a great match, great battle. I stayed positive. I started to feel much better with my tennis by the end of the second set, and [in] the third set. I'm really happy with this victory.”
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Wawrinka’s return game was key to securing a maiden win over Opelka, with the 2014 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters champion maintaining belief even when he was a break down to the big-serving American in the second set.
“You just have to stay positive and try to fight,” said Wawrinka on his approach to returning the Opelka delivery. “If you get a bit lucky, if you show him that you're going to stay there, you are going to get some chances. I got some chances, I played better, and he started to miss a few.”
The never-say-die approach that took Wawrinka past Opelka on Monday is one that has helped the Swiss deal with his frustrations while recovering from a foot injury over the past year. He hopes the Opelka win is just the first of many rewards for the months of hard work he has put in off the court.
“After two surgeries, at my age I could easily have stopped playing because my career is way better than what I expected when I was young," said Wawrinka. "But I still have this fire in me. I still believe that I can play great tennis. I still believe that I make some big results, maybe not now, but in a few months.
“There is no shortcut. I needed to do that time on the court and off the court. It was a long time I was out. I gained some weight, it was tough. With foot surgery you can't do much. I needed a lot of effort to be back, but already in the last few weeks since [Monte Carlo] it is much better.”
Wawrinka returned to competitive action in March at the same ATP Challenger Tour event in Marbella as another former World No. 3, Dominic Thiem. The Austrian had not played since June due to a wrist problem and has lost his first three tour-level matches back, but Wawrinka believes the 2019 Indian Wells champion will also soon be back to winning ways.
“[Thiem and I] practised quite a lot [in Marbella],” said Wawrinka. “I always enjoy practising with him, he's an amazing player. But I think every injury is completely different. We all have a different mindset to come back.
“The reality is that it takes time. You need to accept it. You need to do the right work. He is a hard-working player. He will come back for sure. But it takes time.
“It's not only about the fitness side. It's not only about the tennis game. It's also about the mental part. You have to connect everything together to be able to play your best tennis again.”