Wawrinka ready to step out of Federer's shadow
ONE of the great challenges of Stan Wawrinka's career has been to establish himself as a serious player in his own right, rather than just Roger Federer's Olympic doubles partner.
After beating Tomas Berdych yesterday to reach the Australian Open final, he is beginning to achieve it. You wonder what Wawrinka's thought process will be, then, if Federer should come through this morning's classic encounter with Rafael Nadal.
"I work all my life to get to a grand slam final, and this same guy's still standing in my way!"
The fact is, though, that Wawrinka would probably rather play his old mate on Sunday – even if he has spent the past decade in Federer's alpine shadow – than find himself facing Nadal in the championship match. This is not just because of any Swiss jingoism, nor because he wants to see which player's box his Davis Cup captain, Severin Luthi, would sit in. It is because Nadal's high-bouncing top-spin has repeatedly confounded him in their previous meetings.
Wawrinka may arguably have the best single-handed backhand in the game, but it is far less effective when the ball is jumping up around his earlobes.
After 12 meetings with Nadal – the highest-profile one coming in last year's French Open quarter-final – he has yet to win a set.
Mind you, his record against Federer is hardly much more encouraging: one victory from 14 matches, and that back in 2009. This was another reason – apart from a long-standing friendship – for Federer to celebrate Wawrinka's win over Novak Djokovic from his hotel room on Tuesday.
"When he wins big points, yeah, I guess you do fist pump," Federer admitted. It was good fun. I high-five with Mirka (Federer's wife). We watched the entire fifth set together."
Clearly, Sunday night will be more businesslike, but you can imagine the scenes in Geneva and Zurich – where it will be around 9.45am when the first ball is hit – if Federer makes it through. The streets will be empty. The local vicars might as well take the morning off.
"For sure to play a Swiss final would be amazing," said Wawrinka. "A first for Switzerland, for the country. Roger is the best player ever, but for me it's my first final. To imagine to play against Roger I always said that I prefer to play him in a final and not the first round."
At 28, Wawrinka's success has been a long time brewing. He reached his first grand slam semi-final in New York in September, dismissing a creaking Andy Murray along the way, only to fall to Djokovic in a four-hour classic.
Here at Melbourne Park, he has avenged himself by ousting Djokovic at the quarter-final stage, and thus ending another long record of defeats, 14, against one of the top three.
Yesterday's match threw up a less intimidating opponent: Berdych, the Czech who is increasingly in danger of becoming 'the Choke'. The contest was so finely balanced that Wawrinka won 143 points to Berdych's 142.
Both men were serving with gorilla-like power, as reflected in average speeds of around 120mph and a combined total of 39 aces. This might explain the shortage of breaks: only one in the whole match, which went to Wawrinka early in his 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6 victory.
When the pressure was on, though, it was Berdych who folded. He sent down two double-faults in the third-set tie-break, and another one just six points from the end.
"Last year I played four times against Tomas," said Wawrinka. "He was always the one who was a little bit choking and that's what happened today again." Berdych has made waves in this tournament with his Sheffield Wednesday-style striped shirt, but his steeliness in the crucial moments did not quite match that of the Czech football team – the only side in world football who have a 100pc record in penalty shoot-outs.
"I'm starting to get annoyed with the matches I'm losing in tie-breaks," he said. "I can give you many examples. I need to improve that, definitely."
Self-belief has not been a strength for either of these players in the past.
Wawrinka admits that he never expected to make it this far at a major tournament.
Yet his alliance with Magnus Norman, whom he signed as a coach last spring, seems to have kicked him on to another level.
"I had the feeling that I was playing better and I was dealing better with the pressure also," said Wawrinka. "I'm more mature. Now I feel that it's my time to play my best tennis."
Swiss players, Swedish coaches – could this be the winning combination for 2014? (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal, live, BBC2, Eurosport 8.30am