Stan Wawrinka is the first to acknowledge he hasn’t always been the most consistent player — or the strongest mentally. That’s why, when he shows his mettle during a match, he likes to point his right index finger to his temple.
That signature gesture got a lot of use in the U.S. Open final Sunday, when Wawrinka surprisingly managed to wear down Novak Djokovic and beat the defending champion 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 for his first U.S. Open title and third Grand Slam trophy overall.
“He was the better player. He was tougher mentally,” said Djokovic, offering two of the highest compliments a tennis player can receive from the talented and sturdy Serb ranked No. 1. “He knew what to do. And I was just unlucky in some moments. And that’s it.”
The 31-year-old Wawrinka is the oldest U.S. Open men’s champion since Ken Rosewall was 35 in 1970, and entered Sunday having spent almost exactly twice as much time on court as Djokovic during the course of the tournament: about 18 hours vs. about 9 hours.
“I played quite a lot of tennis these two weeks. I am completely empty,” said No. 3 Wawrinka, who noted during the trophy ceremony that Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
By breaking in the final game of the second and third sets, and by saving 14 of 17 break points he faced, Wawrinka already had gained the upper hand by the time Djokovic clutched at his left leg and grimaced after missing a forehand while getting broken early in the fourth.
Djokovic was granted the unusual chance to have a medical timeout at a time other than a changeover. He removed both shoes and socks so a trainer could help with toe blisters. Wawrinka complained about the 6-minute break, and Djokovic looked over and apologized. Later, Djokovic started limping and received more treatment.
“We played almost four hours,” said Djokovic, “and I think I can speak in the name of Stan, as well: We both felt it.”
Wawrinka has won only five of his 24 career meetings against Djokovic, but has now beaten the 12-time major champion on the way to each of his own Grand Slam titles, including in the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals and 2015 French Open final.
Before this matchup, Djokovic praised Wawrinka as “a big-match player,” and, boy, is he ever. Wasn’t always, though: Playing in the shadow of his far-more-accomplished Swiss countryman and good pal, Roger Federer, Wawrinka needed until his 35th appearance at a major, at age 28, just to get to the semifinals for the first time.
But look at Wawrinka now.
He has now won 11 tournament finals in a row.
He is 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, beating the No. 1-ranked player each time. Take that trio of highest-stakes matches out of the equation, and Wawrinka is 0-19 in all other matches against the top man.
And he did it Sunday by coming back against Djokovic, whose French Open title in June completed a career Grand Slam and made him only the third man — and first in nearly a half-century — to win four consecutive major tournaments.
Consider this: Djokovic had been 51-0 in U.S. Open matches, and 53-2 in all finals, when taking the first set. This time, though, while the thick-chested Wawrinka recovered from an edgy start to begin his typical bullying from the baseline — not only with his best-in-the-game one-handed backhand but off both wings — Djokovic seemed to lose his way.
As Wawrinka placed one stinging shot after another right on a line, Djokovic looked up at coach Boris Becker and the rest of his entourage while gesticulating with his hands and muttering. He went from appearing locked-in at the outset to completely drained in every way.
On one point, Wawrinka delivered a shot so hard it knocked the racket from Djokovic’s grasp and against a wall behind the baseline.
Then, after smacking a forehand winner to end a 20-stroke exchange, Wawrinka pointed to his temple. Two points later, the second set was his.
After a forehand passing shot drew an errant volley for a break early in the third set, Wawrinka pointed to his temple.
And so on.
Think about this: Wawrinka nearly was gone before the end of the U.S. Open’s first week. He was one point from losing in the third round against 64th-ranked Dan Evans, but eventually won in five sets. So Sunday’s victory made Wawrinka the first man to win the U.S. Open after saving a match point since — yes, that’s right — Djokovic in 2011.
“You’re a great champion, a great person. Because of you, I am where I am today,” Wawrinka said. “We know each other (for) many, many years, and I had the chance to practice many times with him and to play him on a big stage.”
With that Djokovic threw his left arm around Wawrinka’s shoulders, knowing which was more up to the task on this day.