How Stan really became the man


PARIS -- A month ago, when the last ball landed just a thread long of the baseline, Stan Wawrinka lifted his racket in celebration, even though to the naked eye, he looked more like someone reacting to a summer-school acceptance letter.

Granted, Wawrinka is a pretty serene fellow, but given what he had accomplished in Monte Carlo -- a first Masters 1000 title amid a star-slathered field -- you'd think he'd give you something more. Nothing like the victory jig Andrea Petkovic unleashes or the Jo Willy jump-spin-hop-spin-bounce number he has going on, but just something that didn't so blatantly belie the festive moment.

Celebration dance or not, Wawrinka's run in Monaco was a watershed point in his career, especially when you consider the player he overcame in the final was his confidant and countryman Roger Federer. Yes, the same Roger Federer who has 17 majors and 21 of his own Masters titles and the same Roger Federer to whom Wawrinka had lost to an astonishing 14 straight times.

If you're scoring at home, that's a lot of straight times.

But listen to Wawrinka speak, and despite all the success he's had -- including the Australian Open back in January -- the deference in his words remains unmistakable.

"It doesn't really mean anything," Wawrinka told after a recent publicity appearance in Portugal. "[I still consider myself] second because he's the best player ever. He's done so well for many, many years -- all the Grand Slams won and all the tournaments. I will always feel like No. 2 in Switzerland."

Fair enough, except for this: Wawrinka is no longer the No. 2 in Switzerland. He is ... wait for it ... the top player in the country. It's true. What once seemed unthinkable, Wawrinka unseated Federer on Jan. 27, the day after winning Oz. You have to go all the way back to Jan. 8, 2001, to find the last time Federer wasn't the top player in his own backyard, when Marc Rosset, then ranked 29th (one spot ahead of Fed), was Switzerland's best hope.

A Swiss winning a Grand Slam is anything but an oddity -- between Federer and Martina Hingis, the country has produced 22 major titles -- but given Wawrinka's age and the rigid landscape of the game, his newfound success was a jolt few of us expected.

"It's wonderful to see him doing all this," said NBC and Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. "We've had a couple of snappy Swiss players, and he's certainly not in the same conversation. But for a guy who's been around for so long and to suddenly become so good. Who are the guys that can break the monopoly [of the Big Four] and win a major conversation? You're talking  [Juan Martin] del Potro and [Andy] Murray -- and now it looks like he's in better shape than either of them. He's been walking into long shadows for a long time. He's finally made his own way, and I'm happy for him."

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