YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The No. 1 Swiss tennis player? It's not who you think

Stanislas Wawrinka still calls countryman Roger Federer 'the best player ever,' but this survivor has persevered past wrenching losses to get to No. 3 in the world. Indian Wells is his proving ground.

March 09, 2014|Bill Dwyre
  • Australian Open champions Li Na and Stanislaw Wawrinka pose for a photo at Indian Wells on Sunday.
Australian Open champions Li Na and Stanislaw Wawrinka pose for a photo… (Nicola Arzani / ATP Tour )

The Swiss are represented in men's tennis at this year's BNP Paribas Open by Stanislas Wawrinka and that other guy.

Wawrinka won the recent Australian Open and is now No. 3 in the world rankings. The other guy becomes Mr. Avis in Switzerland now, and as he tries harder, he holds on to No. 8 in the world.

We jest, of course.

Even Wawrinka knows it will take more than one Grand Slam title to displace Roger Federer as the king of Swiss celebrity. Maybe even as the king of tennis, period.

Nor would Wawrinka want to.

"I'm No. 3," Wawrinka says, somewhat meekly, "but Roger is the best player ever…I would never compare myself to him."

If it sounds as though there is some little-brother syndrome there, judge for yourself.

Wawrinka is 28, Federer 32. They have played 16 times and Wawrinka has won once, in the third round of the 2009 Monte Carlo Masters Series tournament. The public and press grumbled about that one because it deprived them of yet another classic Federer-Rafael Nadal final.

"Roger was just coming back from his wedding then," Wawrinka said, "and I think he was tired."

When they teamed to win the Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008, Federer clearly took over the late stages of the doubles match and served it out. Sunday morning, when the topic of that gold-medal match came up, Wawrinka agreed heartily that "Roger was really something" at the end.

Federer carried the Swiss flag in opening ceremonies at the Athens Olympics in '04 and in Beijing. When the Swiss delegation asked him to carry it again in London in 2012, he suggested somebody else be the flag bearer. He meant Wawrinka, and Wawrinka got to carry it.

Still, there is much more to the current hottest player on the men's tour — 9-1 since the beginning of the year — than merely being a tag-along to Roger Federer.

Wawrinka is the ultimate survivor, a poster boy for hanging in there. He has mastered the art of not despairing. He speaks English, French and Spanish — and is fluent enough in English to nod enthusiastically when asked if he understands the word "perseverance."

It best describes what he has done, who he is.

"I always try to find positives in losses," he said. "It is my way of staying closest to the top players."

His career is written on his left forearm. Literally.

The tattoo says, "Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better."

That was penned by Irish writer Samuel Beckett, a Nobel laureate in literature. It is a perfect summary of the player born in Lausanne, who was No. 55 at the end of 2005 and took until the end of 2013 to crack a year-end top 10 at No. 8.

It seems as if he has played, and lost, more excruciatingly long and frustrating five-set matches than anybody on the tour.

— In '09, he lost a fourth-rounder at Wimbledon in five sets to Andy Murray.

— In '12, he lost five-setters to Mardy Fish and the U.S. in the Davis Cup; and to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the French Open.

— In '13, he lost a seven-hour-plus five-setter in doubles to the Czech Republic in Davis Cup play; a five-hour five-setter to Novak Djokovic in the Australian after winning the first two sets; and another long struggle to Djokovic in the U.S. Open semis.

Along the way, he had suffered through five straight losses in ATP tournament finals before finally getting his second tour title at Casablanca in 2010. Also along the way, he had been described by a British newspaper as being "as clumsy on the court as Federer is graceful."

Still, he persevered. He was making a good living, got married, had a daughter. He kept plugging away.

And then, with few in tennis seeing it coming, he beat Djokovic in the quarterfinals at this year's Australian. He won it in the fifth set, 9-7. It was the first win after 14 straight losses to the Serbian star, and he followed that up by beating Nadal in the final, his first win against the No. 1 Spaniard in 13 matches.

Sadly, even in Wawrinka's finest moment, there was a possible taint. Nadal was clearly injured during the match.

So a little cloud remains over Wawrinka's head.

Since 2006, which spans 33 Grand Slam tournaments, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have failed only four times to win those majors — Andy Murray won at the U.S. Open in 2012 and at Wimbledon in 2013; Juan Martin del Potro won the U.S. Open in '09; and Wawrinka won this year's Australian.

Is Wawrinka just another momentary interloper or the real deal?

He plays No. 29 Andreas Seppi of Italy on Monday, and it has only just begun. Also on his side of the draw are Federer, Nadal and Murray, against whom he has a total of eight wins, six of them over Murray.

Indian Wells has become a Stan Wawrinka proving ground.

Late Sunday morning, he sat in a garden area on the grounds, chatting with a reporter at a table next to Li Na, the Australian Open women's singles champion, who was eating lunch. A photographer, seeing a special opportunity, asked if they would pose together.

Li Na set her noodles aside and the photo op became reality.

She didn't say it, but she clearly knew she was posing with the No. 1 Swiss tennis player, not that other guy.

Los Angeles Times Articles