With a score line reading 6-1, 5-2 in favor of Stanislas Wawrinka over Novak Djokovic, the scoreboard didn’t lie. But that didn’t make it any easier to believe.
The 17th-ranked Swiss, who has played his career in Roger Federer’s shadow, had not beaten Djokovic since 2006. Yet, here he was, poised to take a two-sets-to-love lead, having broken the Serb’s serve four consecutive times.
In the end, it was not the Djokovic recovery that was surprising, but the fact Wawrinka, not known for the steadiness of his nerves in a crisis, battled him for 5 hours, 2 minutes before succumbing 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10.
It was a magnificent duel, easily the best match of this Australian Open so far, and, in Wawrinka’s opinion, the best match he has ever played in his 11 years on the tour.
“I was playing great tennis; I fought like a dog,” he said after dragging an exhausted body into his press conference at 2:35 a.m. “But in the end, he was better.”
Djokovic was obviously greatly relieved to still be clinging to his crown. Anything could have happened in the fifth set because both men were dominant on serve, with Wawrinka increasing his ace count to 16 for the match. But Djokovic defended from the far extremities of the court as well as he has ever done and finally came up with a backhand, cross-court screamer of a pass on his third match point to clinch it.
“One of the longest, most interesting and most exciting matches I have played,” Djokovic said. “All credit to him. I feel sorry one of us had to lose. He definitely deserved to win. He made me run all over the court. He never gave me the same ball. I didn’t know what’s coming next. So I’m just really full of joy for this match.”
There were two factors that contributed to the early 6-1, 5-2 score line. Djokovic had chosen the wrong shoes — a strange mistake for a man who prepares so meticulously — and he slipped continuously early in the first set.
But the other reason was more pertinent, and it had everything to do with the quality of Wawrinka’s ball striking. We knew he had one of the world’s best and most penetrating one-handed backhands, but it was the power and consistency of his forehand that kept catching Djokovic on the hop.
“I can’t believe Stan’s forehand,” said Lleyton Hewitt in amazement. “That’s usually his ‘go to’ side. That’s where you get the errors. But not tonight.”
Well, not for the first hour at least. Wawrinka produced a truly devastating brand of tennis, and the world No. 1 had no answer. But with a two-set lead within his sights at 5-3, 30-0, the Wawrinka temperament, so often fragile in the past, showed its first fault line of the evening.
The timing on that wonderful backhand slipped out of gear, and the ball floated long. Suddenly it was 30-all. Then a forehand found the net. And, on break-back point, his backhand clipped the tape and landed wide. Soon, it was 5-5, and the match was never quite the same again.
Nevertheless, Djokovic might have celebrated breaking serve in the first game of the third set a little too wildly with a kind of leaping dance, because his concentration deserted him in the next game and three errors gave Wawrinka the break back. From then on, it was a battle that ebbed and flowed with both men hitting superb winners and throwing themselves at wide returns to keep the ball in play.
The 15,000 spectators on Rod Laver Arena, the bulk of whom stayed to the end, roared themselves hoarse, and a small band of Swiss supporters, decked out in red and white, rang their cow bells in support of Wawrinka.
In the end, the champion prevailed. But it takes two to produce a contest of this quality and intensity and Wawrinka, in so many ways, was an equal partner in the drama that unfolded.