Stan Wawrinka faces uphill challenge


Roger Federer, despite his measured Swiss heritage, is hardly a neutral party when it comes to this Australian Open men's final.

His countryman, and good friend, Stanislas Wawrinka is playing for his first Grand Slam singles title. Just as significant, Rafael Nadal has history in his sights. A win Sunday night in Melbourne would give Rafa 14 majors, the same number, serendipitously, as the man who will present the winner's trophy, Pete Sampras.

That would very suddenly leave Federer only three ahead of Nadal, who is nearly five years younger than his great rival. Guess which player Federer wants to see triumph?

"I hope he [Wawrinka] wins," Federer told reporters after getting strafed in straight sets by Nadal in the semifinals. "There's no reason not to believe he can beat Rafa. He's clearly got a tough record against him, but many players have that. There's no difference there.

"Pressure's clearly on Rafa because he's got to win this final. Stan's in his first Grand Slam final, so that makes Stan also unpredictable. He's got to use that to his advantage."

This, of course, is enormously wishful thinking. The finalists' courtship began seven years ago here in the third round at Melbourne, with Nadal earning a routine 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Wawrinka. Over the years, whether it was in Stuttgart or Toronto, Shanghai or Monte Carlo, the result has been precisely the same: Nadal in straight sets.

He has won all 12 of their matches, all 26 of their sets.

"He's playing better than ever," Nadal told reporters, telling the truth, regardless. "He's a player that is ready to win against everybody today. If I don't play my best tennis, I am sure that he will win three sets against me. "I'm [not] going to have the chance to beat him."

Maybe it was because he's just a good guy, who always sees the best in an opponent when he's being interviewed by the media. Perhaps it was because Wawrinka did him an enormous favor by disposing of Novak Djokovic, Nadal's most dangerous potential opponent Down Under, in the quarterfinals. In any case, to hear Rafa tell it, this will be a struggle.

"He's serving unbelievable," Nadal said. "He's hitting the ball very strong from the baseline. Very, very quick."

All of these things, oddly enough, also describe Nadal as he has glided through this tournament, losing only one set, to rising star Grigor Dimitrov. With a win, he'll find himself with another distinction that goes directly back to Sampras: Nadal would become the first man since Pistol Pete at the 1997 Wimbledon event to beat three one-handers in his last three matches.

Serving -- and the return game -- promise to be a critical component of the match. Wawrinka was not broken in his semifinal against Tomas Berdych and faced only one break point. Nadal, meanwhile, faced just two break points and was broken once by Federer.

For years, Wawrinka was a steady player on the ATP World Tour but never extraordinary. However, under coach Magnus Norman, he has worked hard to elevate his game -- and his belief. Yet, when he talked to reporters after his semifinal win, Wawrinka still seemed to be in shock.

When was the moment he realized he could win?

"After the match won tonight, I was there," Wawrinka told reporters, drawing laughter. "After the semifinal in the US Open, I knew that I was close to be[ing] there. But still was for me far away to make a final in Grand Slam.

"For me, I was so far. Was not my goal to make final in Grand Slam."

Still, here he is. He has already suspended his disbelief in this tournament, when he beat Djokovic in a stellar four-hour match. That ended a 0-for-14 personal showing against Djokovic and underlined how differently Wawrinka is seeing the ball -- and himself.

"I don't know how I feel for first final," he said. "It's because I beat Berdych tonight. I won against Novak, also. I had some great matches. So, that means I have the level to be there." It almost sounded as if he was trying to convince himself.

"I need to play my best," Nadal said.

If that happens, Wawrinka's best simply will not be enough.