How Stan really became the man

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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 ESPN.com 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."

Just over three months ago, Wawrinka completed the ultimate capstone of his career in winning the year's first major in Melbourne. In the process, he beat Novak Djokovic in the semis and Rafael Nadal in the final, becoming the first player in 21 years to take out the top two seeds en route to a major championship. And right now, no player can say he has more than Wawrinka's three titles in 2014. So whether he likes it or not, Wawrinka can't duck the mounting attention anymore.

"I know I am on the list as one of the favorites," said Wawrinka, who has struggled since winning Monte Carlo, losing two of the three matches he played in Madrid and Rome. "But for me, I am still far away from Nadal, Djokovic and Federer."

A humble analysis, so much so that you could argue Wawrinka's most impressive feat this season has been his ability to keep his feet firmly on the ground -- even with the new heights he's reached. But despite the dearth of end zone dances, we probably should have seen his emergence brewing. After all, the Wawrinka renovation started ...

"I think last year, for sure -- the first match for sure in January against Djokovic in Australia," Wawrinka said. "It helped me get the confidence to see I can play with the top guys. Then it was winning my first title in Oeiras [Portugal] and then made the final in Madrid, and in two weeks I was back in the top 10. I had a few moments last year that were really key and made my first [Grand Slam] semifinal at the US Open. All of last year was special for me. I was playing and winning against the top-10 guys."

Now don't feel too bad if you, like so many of us, were thrown by the early results on tour this season, which hatched only the third new Grand Slam champion since Djokovic won his maiden major six years ago. Even a guy who has coached 10 world No. 1s was unabashedly surprised.

"Who saw that coming?" Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri said. "The guy's never won a major or even a Masters -- and now he's got both. It's amazing what a little confidence will do for you. And, man, he's playing with a lot of god damned confidence right now."

Winning begets winning

Coming in to 2014, Wawrinka had a grand total of four titles, including a four-year stretch in which he had ... none. This season alone, he has three. So what exactly happened?

"Confidence made me more relaxed on the court," Wawrinka said. "When I am relaxed, I move better on the court. I am seeing the things I want to do more clearly. And I am doing it and I trust myself. That's the main reason. I trust myself; I trust my game to beat the top guys."

With an amazing 6-0 record against the top-10 players in the world this year, Wawrinka's confidence has climbed higher than the Eiffel Tower, something he attributes to the work with his coach, Magnus Norman, a former French Open runner-up.

"He has been here for over a year," Wawrinka said. "After one year, I am No. 3 in the world and won one Slam and Masters 1000. When he arrived, he helped me on practice court. He is a really good guy; he is really focused on what we are doing and trying to improve. He gave me a lot of self-confidence to trust myself [and] showed me how to win, how to beat the top guys."

Now, it's on to the French Open. With his No. 3 ranking, Wawrinka wouldn't have to face Nadal, Djokovic or Federer until the semifinals. But even before any potential matchups with the game's foremost players, Wawrinka has some fairly arduous endeavors in front of him if he is going to build on his Grand Slam success.

No player since Jim Courier some 24 years ago has won the first two majors of the year. The Aussie and French are two vastly different events, and though the surfaces across the board have homogenized in recent years, Roland Garros is still very much a unique obstacle, especially when you look at the granular details (so to speak) involved.

"The clay is a different feeling with sliding, with longer matches sometimes," Wawrinka said. "I think I grew up on clay so I always love to play [on it.] The challenge to beat the top guy is always really, really tough. Especially Rafa, because he's the best player ever on clay and the biggest challenge to beat him on clay, especially in Paris."

Since Monte Carlo, however, Wawrinka has stumbled, dropping a tight three-setter to one of the game's rising stars, Dominic Thiem, in his Madrid Masters opener. And a week later, Wawrinka lost early to Tommy Haas in Rome, a string of defeats that could leave people wondering if he's vulnerable. But the notion that these were considered pretty big upsets goes to show you how far Wawrinka has come.

The fact remains, though, that Nadal hasn't skunked his opponents in the same fashion as he has in years past on clay. He won Madrid but was outplayed by  Kei Nishikori in the final before the world No. 9 retired with back spasms. And in Rome, Rafa lost to Djokovic, who is coming off his own injury, in the final. And as for Federer, he's played only two matches since the birth of his latest twins, including a straight-sets wins here Sunday.

Which leads us to the obvious question: Can Wawrinka win his second consecutive major?

"He is my third favorite to win the French," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. "The guy is really impressing me. But I will say hard courts right now is his best surface. A lot depends on weather. Let's say you get dry weather: Wawrinka's game could be even more dangerous because he can hit through the court. If you get rain and the surface is slower, that would make it tougher."

Wawrinka said he won't be thinking about how to beat Nadal in Paris. His only concern will be playing his style of game and concentrating on who's next in the draw.

But forgive us, the overzealous media, for wanting a little more. Right now, Wawrinka is statistically the only player who can sweep the majors and accomplish one of the rarest feats in tennis: the season Slam. So we ask you again, Brad Gilbert, can he do it?

"If you had told me before the season he was going to win a Slam, I would have put his odds at 0.1," he said. "But he won the Aussie. So anything else after that is gravy. But to run the table and win the others. How many guys have done it in the Open era?"

A rhetorical question from Gilbert, of course, who knows the answer is only the great Rod Laver, who bushwhacked all of his competition in 1969. So yeah, it does seem like a bit of a stretch.

"Considering Wawrinka had never won one before and then to win all four, I mean oh my god," Gilbert said. "Odds would be astronomical: 1,000-1."

Small odds, for sure. But on the bright side, they're a hell of a lot better than anyone else's.

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