For the first time since Juan Martin Del Potro’s victory over Roger Federer in the 2009 US Open Final, men’s tennis finally has a Grand Slam champion from outside of the group of four players who have dominated the sport for so long.
There was no shortage of drama in Melbourne, but also perhaps some regret that Stanislaw Wawrinka’s victory over Rafa Nadal may be remembered as much for Nadal’s injury problems as it will for the fact that Wawrinka earned a first Grand Slam title in the 36 tournaments that he has qualified for.
Nadal was quick to pay tribute to his opponent and was typically reluctant to use injury as an excuse for defeat, but having been reduced almost to tears during a second set in which he was virtually unable to compete whilst waiting for his medication to take effect, it was clear that the Spaniard was unable to reach the standard he’s capable of.
Not that there would have been any certainty of a different result even if Nadal had been able to give his all, for the first set saw him thoroughly outplayed for large periods by a man who has made huge progress in the last year.
As of this time last year, Wawrinka had only two quarter-final appearances to show for his Grand Slam career, though his displays at the 2013 Australian Open provided plenty of evidence of the high standard of tennis that he is capable of producing.
A gruelling five-set classic against Novak Djokovic – the defending champion and world number one – was one of the best matches of the calendar year. For over five hours, Wawrinka matched his opponent with some stunning tennis, eventually losing 12-10 in the fifth set to fall just short of what would have been a big upset.
A career-best performance at Roland Garros was ended only by Nadal, and Wawrinka’s first Grand Slam semi-final was to follow later in the year at the US Open, and was ended in similar circumstances to his defeat in Melbourne earlier in the season – a five-set defeat to Djokovic.
After the heroics in his matches with Djokovic during 2013, there was much more interest in this year’s draw, especially when the two players made it through to the quarter-final stage, and a third Grand Slam meeting in just over a year.
The Swiss would have been a thoroughly deserving winner during either of the titanic encounters during last year, but did finally end a run of 14 successive defeats to Djokovic stretching back to 2006, battling back from a set down to lead the match, before having the courage to see out the final set after Djokovic had levelled the match at two sets apiece.
Wawrinka has shown over the past 12-18 months that his increasingly frequent appearances in the latter stages of big tournaments is not down to fluke, and the way in which he responded against Djokovic proved that he’s a player not only with the talent to win the odd best-of-three-set match against the very best players – but that of a player with a belief that he can win such matches on the very biggest of stages.
In an era which for years has been dominated by a group of four players, at least two of whom are considered to be amongst the greatest of all time, there has to be an extremely strong mentality shown by those ranked just below the top 4 or 5 if they’re to have any chance of competing for the sport’s top prizes.
Where the likes of Berdych and Tsonga continue to fall short, despite having shown repeatedly a talent to compete with the sport’s top stars, Wawrinka has now stepped in and shown that when ability is combined with an unshakeable determination, it’s not impossible to reach the top.
With the newly crowned Swiss number one due to turn 29 in March, there’s clearly a question mark over just how long Wawrinka can remain at the level he has now reached, or whether he will go on to add more majors titles to the Grand Slam so dramatically won in Melbourne.
But having overcome the two best players in the world and cemented his place amongst the elite, Wawrinka is certainly going to be around for the time being time at least. A new champion makes for a perfect start to a season promising plenty of drama, and if Wawrinka can continue his growing momentum, there may yet be more surprises during the 2014 ATP Tour.