Everyone takes for granted that it’s a good thing when Novak Djokovic wins Grand Slam tennis matches. After all, he’s one of the game’s best players, always creates excellent tennis and is the closest thing the sport has to a true showman. When he walked out onto the court at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Monday night, he did so to the tune of thunderous applause. His opponent, Stanislaw Wawrinka, did not. Yet the nature of the men’s tennis landscape somehow managed to create a compelling rivalry between the two, in spite of the fact that the former held a 15-2 lifetime record against the latter, and held a six to zero edge in Grand Slam championships. Then Wawrinka went out and bludgeoned his way to a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 quarterfinal victory over Djokovic, and took the applause typically reserved for a three-time defending Australian Open champion for himself.
And this is an even better thing.
For years now, men’s tennis tournaments have largely functioned as exercises in finding ways to make the inevitable and irrelevant compelling. Even if you know the numbers, it’s worth running through them again. Since the French Open in 2005, when Rafael Nadal won the first of his eight (and counting) titles at Roland Garros, there have been 35 Grand Slam tournaments. Three men (Nadal, Djokovic and, of course, Roger Federer) won 32 of them. Federer made 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals. Djokovic made 19 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. And Nadal has a better lifetime winning percentage than both of them, not to mention 13 Grand Slam titles of his own. Even the man often mentioned in the same breath with the trio formerly known as the “Big Three”—Britain’s Andy Murray—has demonstrated impressively consistent excellence of his own since 2011, reaching the quarterfinals of all 12 Grand Slam tournaments he’s entered (and the semifinals in no fewer than nine of those).
What this means is that regardless of how they begin, these tournaments always end the same way: with one of three or four incredibly gifted athletes receiving a very large trophy. Whatever happens before they inevitably arrive at tournament’s final weekend is merely preamble—so it’s understandable if fans don’t get too excited for a match between two players (even two very talented ones), knowing it’s virtually guaranteed they won’t factor into the tournament’s final equation. On the rare occasion that Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray do lose, it’s almost always to one another—or in some sort of fluke upset.
Make no mistake about it: Wawrinka’s win over Djokovic late Tuesday night in Melbourne was no fluke. Their rivalry—in spite of its apparent one-sidedness—has blossomed into one of the most entertaining and competitive in tennis over the course of the last year. At last year’s Australian Open, Djokovic got the best of Wawrinka in a five-hour, five-set marathon. It was the best match of the tournament. Then in September at the U.S. Open, Djokovic defeated Wawrinka, this time in a four-hour, five-set marathon. Once again, it was the best match of the tournament (in no small part thanks to this point).
During both matches, Wawrinka challenged Djokovic aggressively, smacking forehands and backhands with such ferocity that Djokovic’s legendary groundstrokes seemed downright pedestrian by comparison at times. But there was always the sense that the drama of those matches was born out of a desire to see how far Wawrinka could push Djokovic before ultimately succumbing to the inevitability of the Splendid Serb’s triumph. It was theatrical, not functional.
And yet it was clear from watching Wawrinka in those matches that even though no one else believed he stood a chance against Djokovic, he believed he did. It was that belief that set him apart from the other players outside that elite group. Even talented players ranked higher than he—David Ferrer, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to name a few—never played against the truly elite with Wawrinka’s confidence and fearlessness.
On Monday night in Melbourne, it was more of the same. The crowd in Rod Laver Arena seemed to root for Wawrinka not because they believed him capable of toppling the four-time Aussie champ, but because they wanted another five-set classic between the pair before the inevitable unfolded. But it never did. The Djokovic who stepped on the court against Wawrinka was not the same one who hadn’t lost a single match since falling to Nadal in the final at the U.S. Open in September. He was the Djokovic who lost that match to Nadal in September, the one who couldn’t find a way to beat Andy Murray two months earlier at Wimbledon. He was vulnerable, and Wawrinka knew it—and used it.
“Novak, when he’s playing at his best, is better than me for sure,” Wawrinka said after the match. Djokovic was not at his best. He committed 60 unforced errors and spent much of the matching barking at himself or yelling in the direction of his player’s box and new coach Boris Becker. But even if Djokovic was not at his best, it does little to diminish what Wawrinka accomplished. His successes haven’t been limited to the grueling matches against Djokovic. He rose a career-best No. 8 in the ATP rankings and, was knocked out of three of his last four Grand Slam tournaments by either Djokovic or Nadal.
At 28, Wawrinka is no phenom, but that may be exactly what enables him to break through into the heights of men’s tennis. In addition to their unparalleled talent, the game’s best players are virtually unshakable mentally—only someone equally confident and unflappable can hope to stand a chance against them, and it’s exceptionally rare to find a young player with an abundance of those qualities. Djokovic recognized as much after the match. “He’s in a great form in the last 15 months, he know’s how to play on the big stage,” he said. “He’s mentally matured.”
The win over Djokovic doesn’t guarantee Wawrinka anything in the tournament’s final days, but the draw is certainly in his favor. With Nadal, Murray and Federer all on the opposite side of the bracket, Wawrinka will only have to get past Thomas Berdych to reach his first-ever Grand Slam final.